If your idea of a perfect winter holiday is to while away the hours watching live top-class soccer, you best not live near Seattle.
Among native Puget Sounders, perhaps only octogenarians can speak of such an experience in their lifetime. As we take a view to scores of frigid, rain-swept Premier League matches pressed into a cramped calendar, we can only surmise that long ago someone came to their senses and simply said, “No more.”
Who knows, someday MLS may conform to the FIFA time table. But a look back at the last century or so illustrates why playing through the winter is problematic in Cascadia and downright impossible in a majority of MLS markets. New Year’s Day 2018 forecasts 12 of those cities mired in sub-freezing temperatures. Montreal’s high is predicted to reach minus-6 degrees F.
But enough about MLS. This is more a story of the hardened souls (masochists, some might say) in Seattle’s long-ago past who truly played for the love of the game and the sense of community it fosters, and did so in some of the most trying of circumstances. This is a tale of how and why our forefathers once tread the less-than-firma terra during the short, bleak and, yes, festive days of winter.
Holiday Bonus: Another Play Date
When published reports of organized soccer (ne, association football) first began appearing in western Washington, it was during a decade of exponential population growth in Seattle and Tacoma. Nearly a quarter of the residents were foreign-born, with most coming from Europe or European ancestry, and they brought along their passion for football.
Six-day work weeks were still quite common, with miners in Black Diamond, for instance, going underground for 60 hours each week. In the traditional playing season, Sunday was reserved for worship and early afternoon matches. The only exception to Sundays was a federal holiday, and by 1890 -- just one year after Washington being granted statehood -- Tacoma AFC hosted Portland’s Wonders at Baseball Park (located at 11th and L in The Hilltop).
So began a tradition of intercity and Cascadian holiday challenge matches. Sometimes clubs and sometimes 'picked' teams or all-stars. It was no bus trip; in its infancy, it was a steamer between B.C. and Puget Sound or a train up from Portland.
Venues were many. Dugdale Park, the forerunner to Sicks Stadium, stood on the site of the Rainier Avenue Lowe’s. Dugdale enabled sponsors to sell tickets, as did Civic Stadium (generally same location as Seattle’s Memorial Stadium) in the 1930s. With few people owning automobiles, spectators arrived on foot or via street car.
Gate receipts obviously offset transportation and lodging costs, however there were benevolent causes as well. For three consecutive years Seattle’s all-stars hosted teams from British Columbia as fundraisers for Orthopedic Hospital (now Seattle Children’s), with a return game to Victoria or Vancouver in the spring.
A Warm Cascadia Spirit
The spirit of the holiday season was evident not only the charitable purpose but the communal gatherings associated with the matches. Visitors might be extended theatre tickets the eve of the encounter. When Seattle’s Skinner & Eddy Shipyards club faced Wallace Shipyards of Vancouver on Christmas Day 1918, both teams dined together afterward.
It was a welcoming custom that lasted well into the 1960s with local ethnic entries in the state league. Games could be physical and contentious yet all sides could converge on the same restaurant or pub soon after to share a pint or two.
Crowds reached as large as an estimated 3,000 for the Washington-BC all-stars Orthopedic benefit at Denny Field (Husky football’s original home, NE 45th and 20th Ave. NE) in 1926. However, the variable in all matters was, of course, the weather. And in the Pacific Northwest winter, it was seldom anything resembling ideal.
Baby, It's Cold (and Wet) Outside
Newspaper accounts refer to everything from “frosty, hard ground” to strong winds, from “heavy turf” to a blanket of white. On New Year’s Day 1927, the University of British Columbia’s XI visited UW (Husky) Stadium. According to The Seattle Times story, under conditions “better suited to water polo,” Seattle won, 2-1, in a driving rain that “turned the playing field into a shallow lagoon.”
A year later, on New Year’s 1928, Washington (featuring future hall of famer Barney Kempton) and Oregon all-stars were skidding around West Seattle’s Hiawatha Playfield, atop 2 inches of freshly fallen snow. What would normally be a big draw instead attracted a small gathering willing and able to brave the elements. Once, a charity game was moved at the last minute from Dugdale to Lower Woodland because of a waterlogged pitch–after 1,500 tickets had already been sold. In 1939 a doubleheader at Civic Stadium was rained out altogether.
Be it the weather or the onset of World War II–oddly, in 1935 Seattle’s German AC hosted members of a French navy training vessel at Upper Woodland–high-profile holiday matches effectively ended with a state league triple-header on New Year’s Day 1941. A year later, the nation was at war, and in the postwar era the state association observed a two-week break beginning before Christmas.
Note: Boxing Day, not being a U.S. holiday never took hold for soccer, unless it fell on a weekend. The original Tacoma Stars hosted a single game on Dec. 26.
A Chilling Reminder
In our modern era, we are occasionally reminded that our raw, winter days are merely something to survive, with the quality of soccer suffering. Seattle Pacific hosted the 1975 NCAA Division II finals, finishing in sub-freezing temperatures at Memorial. Three years later, a snow–covered Memorial prompted SPU to shift a playoff to Husky Stadium, and the Falcons’ 1985 semifinal was forced indoors to the Kingdome because of a record snowfall. More recently, in 2013, Washington hosted an NCAA quarterfinal on a frozen (25 degrees) field on Montlake.
Generally speaking, Seattle teams seem to avoid playing home dates on holidays almost entirely. In 41 seasons, the Sonics played at home on Christmas twice (compared to seven away) and nine times on New Year’s. A Seahawks home game has never fallen on Christmas or New Year’s, and the Sounders and Mariners are routinely away for Independence Day. The Sounders did visit Portland on Christmas Eve 1980 for an afternoon indoor game; they flew home by evening.
Clearly, what was once an early 20th century tradition of engaging the greater world in celebration of sport and the season has all but vanished as the options for holiday activity have grown to include movies and TV fare, including gridiron bowl games. Yet that vigor and affection for playing and watching this great game remains in our blood. When witnessing wintry weather during these contemporary holidays, that knowledge warms the heart.
Frank MacDonald is a Seattle soccer journalist and historian. This story first appeared on his website and has been republished here with his permission.