He's called well over a thousand games for the Huskies and long ago became a local broadcasting institution. But it may come as a surprise that Bob Rondeau cut his teeth on play-calling as the voice of the Sounders.
That's right, before he first exclaimed "Touchdown, Washington!" came shouts of "Goooooooal, Sounders!"
Back in 1979, when KOMO AM-1000 added soccer to its stable of UW football and basketball, Rondeau stepped up to the mic with no experience in play-by-play and admittedly little knowledge of the game.
"I knew less than nothing about soccer," says Rondeau. "I didn't know a soccer ball from a cue ball."
His sports broadcasting background consisted of reporting and serving as color commentator to Bruce King's call of the Huskies (the same Bruce King who voiced the first Sounders TV broadcast in 1975).
"I went in feet-first and hit the ground running," recalls Rondeau. "It was my first experience of play-by-play of any kind."
In some respects, Rondeau benefitted from following Wayne Cody. A huge and colorful personality, Cody succeeded Bob Robertson when Sounders games moved from KVI to KIRO in 1977. Cody was no Robertson; he was casual in his delivery. Details of the match were secondary to his conversational tone. Still, with his popular Sportsline evening call-in program, he provided the team access beyond the niche audience.
Experience Ain't Everything
Purists may have bristled at Cody's style, but media pundits were critical of the club choosing "a voice who knows less about the sport than do the fans."
Jack Daley, Sounders GM, defended the decision. "I feel Bob is one of the most talented young announcers in the business. He has the ability," Daley was quoted saying, "and he learns fast."
"I did a crash course and reached out to people and books and learned about the game," Rondeau remembers. "I met up with Tommy Grieve, an old Scotsman who had worked with Cody. Tommy worked with me on the broadcasts and mentored me mightily in getting ready for the season."
Seattle played three local preseason games and Rondeau rehearsed, describing the action into a cassette recorder. He was prepared with background information galore. Still, he approached opening night at the Kingdome with apprehension.
"I had tons of trepidation," he admits. "Often times you just dive into things and learn as you go by necessity; it becomes the real mother of invention."
Many an American soccer broadcaster has walked the tightrope between adopting European football phrases at the expense of losing those trying to understand the new sport. Rondeau experimented-substituting 50-yard-line for centerline, sideline for touchline-with little pushback. They were less forgiving when it came to glossing over the more mundane movements and positioning, particularly when the ball remained in a team's own half.
In one instance the listening audience featured Sounders forward Micky Cave, injured and unable to travel.
"He got all over me," says Rondeau. "He said, ‘I couldn't follow the ball; I didn't know what was what.' I was humbled by that, to be sure." Rather than become defensive Rondeau accepted Cave's pointers, consulted him on occasion and enlisted him as a guest analyst.
Between games Rondeau would rewind tapes, performing a self-critique in his car as he crossed town. He did it again early in his days as primary voice to the University of Washington.
"You've got to be honest with yourself," he contends. "I was never as bad as I thought nor as good. It was a huge, huge learning curve but really enjoyable along the way."
During the week, Rondeau's reporting duties would take him around the town, from Montlake to the Seahawks, Sonics and Mariners headquarters. In his second season, when he really began hitting his stride as a soccer announcer, the Sounders were flying high in their first season under Alan Hinton, scoring lots of goals, winning at a record pace and averaging over 24,000 fans. The sport was far from a sideshow novelty.
"It had a legitimate presence on the sports scene here, and (the media) enjoyed covering it. I certainly did."
One of the Lads
Media types tend to hang together on the road. Yet Rondeau was also welcomed into the inner circle. Jimmy Gabriel and Hinton would pull him close, and would point out the finer details of the game as well as the NASL's special players, such as Cryuff, Best, Chinaglia and Trevor Francis.
Sounders players invited him to their card games, and a suspended (supposedly for drinking) Alan Hudson asked Rondeau, then an avid runner, to join him for a workout. "I couldn't even think about trying to keep up with him. He damn near killed me."
A true appreciation for the sport had taken root. He was comfortable with the language and terminology; he understood.
Fewer than half of road games were televised (with Bob Robertson calling those), and Rondeau vividly described the surroundings to listeners. I specifically recall a Sunday afternoon (non-TV) broadcast from San Diego. Seattle squandered an early 2-nil lead. But when Jeff Stock scored in the final minute of overtime, I could envision it all, including the cloud of dust from the Jack Murphy Stadium diamond as Stock drove home the winner through a crowded goalmouth.
Just Getting Started
By the end of the 1980 season much of the learning process was complete. Unfortunately, so was his run at the mic.
King had moved on to New York, prompting Rondeau to shift into UW play-by-play. With the Sounders to begin winter indoor play, the bosses (UW, KOMO and the Sounders) mutually determined he could no longer handle football and two soccer campaigns (he took over Husky basketball in 1985).
Although the rest is history, at least on Montlake, Rondeau was reluctant to accept the decision. The Times quoted him responding: "I am disappointed. I enjoy the sport of soccer immensely, enjoy the people involved in it. But I'm caught in the middle and there's not a great deal I can do."
Beyond the action and the travel across the continent, he would miss the relationships most of all. Today, he stands by that sentiment.
"I had a full plate. I was doing my radio gig and the Huskies," recounts Rondeau. "But I did miss it, and mostly I missed the people.
"These guys were so much fun," he says. "It was so different from an immediate perception from what it's like dealing with American professional sport, particularly at the professional level, the difference in how much more camaraderie there was among the players, how approachable and welcoming they were, how glad they were to be here, especially the foreign players."
He adds: "They weren't exclusionary in the least, and they treated me as one of them. It made the whole thing just that much easier."
Finally, a Second Act
Heralded (by the NASL) as the Sport of the 80s, outdoor pro soccer ebbed three years after Rondeau's exit. While he had seen big crowds routinely in Seattle, New York, Minnesota and Tampa, he also witnessed the scarcity of fans in L.A., New England and Atlanta. Like others, he wasn't sure big time soccer would get a second act.
He holds high regard for Sounders FC, but adds that the rest of MLS is playing catch-up when it comes to crowds.
"Seattle is still pretty exceptional in that regard as a bell cow franchise, with the others trying to get there. (But) to see the kind of success here in Seattle finally is kind of a payoff to that vision and all that infrastructure that goes with it, the youth involvement and so forth that we always thought would translate into the sport (making it) in this country and never really did. Says Rondeau: "Finally now, at long last, that's coming to pass."
Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian. This story first appeared on his website and has been republished here with his permission.