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What Might Have Been: SeaDogs Finish Strong

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They lasted only three seasons, yet the Seattle SeaDogs may have been on the verge of something big when went out on top in 1997.

For those inclined to seek lost treasures, a mission awaits: Where exactly resides the championship trophy for the Seattle SeaDogs?

Is it stowed in the garage of some player or coach? Maybe in the corner of a former owner's basement billiard room? Or was it somehow designated for the dumpster or worse, a fateful trip to Oklahoma City?

The SeaDogs were one of the shortest-lived professional soccer clubs in Cascadia, yet they will forever hold the distinction of defending Continental Indoor Soccer League champions. In short, they had their struggles but finished on a high note.

During their three-year stand at Seattle Center, the SeaDogs were met mostly with ambivalence by the soccer community, if not the general public. They announced themselves 19 months in advance of their debut and during the one window over 41 years that Puget Sound was without a functioning club. Still, they were essentially greeted with a collective shrug.

The expansion team had the backing of solid ownership in Barry Ackerley's Full House Sports & Entertainment, a conglomerate consisting of the NBA Sonics and three radio stations, including Sports Radio KJR AM. In fact, NBA teams operated five of the 15 CISL franchises.

However, multiple factors were working against the success of the SeaDogs. Apart from the heyday of the Tacoma Stars, indoor soccer had proven a hard sell in the area. Once they began operating at the Center Arena in 1995, their direct competition outdoors, the A-League Sounders, was playing a few hundred yards away at Memorial Stadium.

As much as Full House offered stability, resources and the ability to promote the team, they didn't know the game or the soccer community, and there was the suspicion that their heart wasn't entirely in it. This was a basketball business seeking to maximize efficiencies by filling arena dates and the airwaves (SeaDogs were carried on KJR) during the offseason with a bargain basement product.

Entertainment, But on a Budget

During Seattle's first season, the CISL salary cap was $160,000; by comparison, Preki had made around $160,000 himself while with the Stars. Those likely to merit the maximum pay of $3,500 per month were Jean Harbor, a former U.S. National Team star; Michael Collins, a proven 15-year indoor veteran; and Ralph Black, who had played more than 250 games with the Stars.

"The guys who made up that Sea Dogs team were guys that didn't make the A-League Sounders, with a couple foreign guys in between," says Brian Schmetzer, member of that first team.

When it came to a coach, however, the SeaDogs had found a figure of instant credibility. Fernando Clavijo had started for the U.S. during the 1994 World Cup, and he was a key contributor to three MISL championships in San Diego.

While the Stars and NASL Sounders indoor season had taken place during the winter, the SeaDogs were counterintuitive, trying to build an audience indoors in the all too short Northwest summer. In a Sun Belt city the attraction to CISL may have been access to air conditioning. Not so, Seattle.

Team management was confident they could pull people inside by promising affordable entertainment. The stated target audience was kids and women; they did not see the Sounders (who were averaging 4,500) as competition.

"If you like the carnival atmosphere, you'll like us," Full House president John Dresel told The Seattle Times. "Fans won't be coming to just see a soccer event, they will be coming to see an entire show."

If the caliber of talent was sub-standard to Tacoma, the SeaDogs surpassed the Stars in terms of presentation. Beyond the fog machine and searchlights, there was the 27-foot inflatable mascot through which they ran onto the field. Salty the SeaDog made a dramatic entrance by sliding down a rope from the ceiling. Jugglers and clowns (even J.P. Patches on occasion) entertained near entry points. Once the team moved to the newly rebuilt Key Arena in 1996, there were video replays on the scoreboard and giveaways distributed by the in-house mini-blimp.

Off to a Slow Start

The initial response was lukewarm.  On opening night, June 23, 1995, against San Jose the attendance was 3,529 in the 4,000-seat Arena. The only larger crowd that season came three months later, against Portland in the final home game. The smallest gathering (1,630), perhaps coincidentally, came on a night when the SeaDogs and Sounders (3,419) went head-to-head.

Whereas the Sounders were tracking toward their first of back-to-back league titles, their indoor counterparts were en route to a 12-16 finish, missing the playoffs by one game. A year later in Key Arena, their record dipped to a league-worst 10-18. More encouraging was the attendance, which increased 63 percent, to an average 3,812, eclipsing the Sounders.

"It was a slow start, No. 1, because we were not very good those first two years, and it was a new sport," offers Schmetzer, who served as Clavijo's assistant coach. "The people at Full House tried to do their best to market the sport. But Seattle's a winning sports town."

Clearly, Full House came to the same conclusion, and Clavijo was given the green light to upgrade the roster. The squad, with a predominance of Washington and Seattle Pacific alumni, still surpassed the minimum 13 local players needed to CISL roster mandate. But it evident upgrade.

Third Year's the Charm

In Tom Bialek, Bill Crook, Jason Dunn and Dick McCormick they added substantial firepower and experience. Dunn had earned A-League Rookie of the Year with the Sounders while McCormick had helped anchor the midfield and Crook the back line. Indoors with Wichita the previous winter, Dunn had scored 52 goals, McCormick 31 assists. Crook had been a Stars fixture.

With the advent of MLS and the A-League now decidedly Division 2, Sounders salaries had been slashed. After passing on a SeaDogs bid in 1996, McCormick got a superior offer for '97.

"It was a financial move, and I saw we would have a very good team," says McCormick, who had played both MISL and NPSL. "They were all pros from other leagues, so we had a real solid core, a solid first two lines."

Harbor returned following a year's absence, and Clavijo's other two key acquisitions actually arrived the previous year: goalkeeper Juan De La O and forward John Olu Molomo. De La O was voted CISL keeper of the year despite going 6-9 as a starter. Olu Molomo energized the attack, helping the Dogs go 9-9 in the second half of '96.

Clavijo says both were persuaded to stay put by the prospect of winning a championship. Before a game was played, he was telling all that the SeaDogs were the league's team to beat.

Seattle sent a message in the first two weeks, winning five straight, all on the road. By two months in, when De Lea O blanked Sacramento, they stood 13-5. Turning the corner into September, the crowds began to build and, sure enough, Clavijo's side finished the regular season wit the best record at 21-7. The SeaDogs had gone from worst to first.

The playoffs began with two-game sweeps of Portland and Sacramento, setting-up a final series against the Houston Hotshots. Coming from three goals down, an Olu Molomo overtime goal rewarded a franchise-best crowd of 8,018 with a 6-5 victory in the opener. Game 2 would come 24 hours later in Houston.

Going Out in Style

During the third season, Full House executives became increasingly engaged, more enthused and once in the final they came through in a big way. Minutes after the Game 1 win, the team was whisked away to Boeing Field, where the Sonics corporate charter awaited on the tarmac. Soon the SeaDogs-whose salaries were more along the lines of NBA equipment managers-were in the air and sitting down to dinner in the spacious leather captain's chairs. Then they fell asleep.

The plane touched down pre-dawn in Houston and the players were napping at the hotel until late morning. Meanwhile, the Hotshots, up early in Seattle, were boarding a commercial flight for home.

"Houston had to fly all day and then go directly to the game," recalls McCormick. "I remember going down to the restaurant and having a nice brunch and seeing Roger Clemens there, and I'm a big fan of his. And I remember were ready for that game."

Reporters noted that Seattle looked a step faster from the outset. McCormick and Harbor struck early, scoring goals in the first six minutes. Harbor made it 4-1 going into the fourth quarter and the SeaDogs cruised to the title, 7-1.

"I promised a championship to the owners," said Clavijo afterward. "We set all our goals and achieved all of them, plus a couple more."

In what proved to be the SeaDogs' last hours together, they partied all the way home on the plane to Seattle.

"That flight home was a lot of fun," says McCormick. "They loaded up the plane with beer and champagne. The owners were on the flight, up in the front, smoking cigars. They were so funny, so proud of winning the title."

The SeaDogs arrived home champions, but to little fanfare. There was no victory parade, no banner hung in the rafters of Key Arena. After catching up on his sleep back home, Clavijo went to the club offices with the CISL trophy, presenting it to Ackerley. That's the last he, or anyone connected with the team, saw of it.

Clavijo went on to coach in MLS and is now technical director in Dallas.

"Regardless of the league, winning championships is not easy, and that was my first as a head coach, so I will keep it very close to my heart," he offers. "It took three years to put the franchise as league best. If that team had continued to play together, I have no doubts they would win another championship."

Instead, Portland, Dallas and Houston promptly pulled out of the CISL. Two days before Christmas and down to eight teams, the league ceased operations.

For months Seattle was in limbo. Clavijo and the other reaming clubs entered talks with the NPSL winter circuit, but eventually he left for a job in Florida and several SeaDogs followed suit. In time, Full House would fill those same summer dates with a WNBA team, the Storm.

As far as earning a living wage playing indoor soccer in the Puget Sound, the SeaDogs' demise marked the end of a chapter first begun with the Sounders in 1980.

"It's kind of a shame," remarks Schmetzer, now 18 years later. "We showed in that last year we were picking up crowds, and the owners had gotten into it.

"It wasn't the fact that the SeaDogs folded; the Ackerleys were still in it," he adds. "It's just too bad because we were just starting our success."

Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian. This story first appeared on his website and has been republished here with his permission.