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Big Crowd, Big Cause

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Rarely does a huge match draw the biggest of crowds. MLS Cup 2019 is the exception.

CenturyLink Field Courtesy of Chris Coulter - Sounders Photos Chris Coulter/Sounders Photos

Without question the best, most dramatic match I ever witnessed live was played before fewer than 1,500 fans and ended near midnight. The largest crowd to which I was a party was for a scoreless affair under a scorching midday sun. And five of the eight biggest attendances for matches played in Seattle didn’t matter at all.

That’s what makes this coming Sunday such a beautiful convergence of the masses with the most meaningful afternoon of footy our state has ever seen. When the first whistle pierces the mid-autumn air for Sounders vs. Toronto, CenturyLink Field will be teeming with people who came to be part of history, part of a unique experience in Seattle sporting culture: One game to determine the champion of an eight-month marathon known as MLS.

No doubt, that’s what sparked the run on tickets, fans seeking to seize the moment. When the Reds took down Atlanta and soon after the ticket link went live to season-ticket holders, no one needed a clever hashtag or promotional gimmick to go online. Seattle became a soccer capitol long, long ago; like their playing heroes, the fans are smart and opportunistic, and soon the lower bowl inventory was exhausted, and folks took aim on getting tickets for friends in the upper deck. Within 48 hours, the CLink was full-up.

Bigger match, bigger crowd. It stands to reason.

Size Matters

Seldom does one see or hear of professional football or baseball fans crowing about attendance at this game or that. They just don’t. Those sports have long been entrenched in American sporting culture, and big crowds are nothing new (swaths of empty seats is another matter). Elsewhere around the globe, in Europe and South and Central America, there’s always been the expectation for full stands around a big footy match.

Washington’s most attended soccer matches

Attendance Date Venue Teams
Attendance Date Venue Teams
67,385 Aug. 25, 2013 CenturyLink Field Sounders vs. Timbers (MLS)
67,052 July 20, 2011 CenturyLink Field Sounders vs. Manchester United (friendly)
66,848 Aug. 5, 2009 Qwest Field Sounders vs. Barcelona (friendly)
66,830 Aug. 9, 2006 Qwest Field Real Madrid vs. D.C. United (friendly)
66,722 July 22, 2003 Seahawks Stadium Manchester United vs. Celtic (friendly)
66,452 Oct. 7, 2012 CenturyLink Field Sounders vs. Timbers (MLS)
66,216 Oct. 27, 2013 CenturyLink Field Sounders vs. Galaxy (MLS)
65,289 July 18, 2009 Qwest Field Sounders vs. Chelsea (friendly)
64,358 Aug. 30, 2015 CenturyLink Field Sounders vs. Timbers (MLS)
64,207 July 13, 2014 CenturyLink Field Sounders vs. Timbers (MLS)

In America, however, soccer is still an outsider, although in certain markets the pro game has shed its niche standing. Seattle has done it. Twice, in fact. Locally and nationally, from time to time we need validation, and attendance and TV ratings are key metrics.

When Seattle became the first NASL market to host a sell-out (1974), that moved the needle, near and far. When the Sounders sold-out the Kingdome (58,128; not all seats yet installed) for Pele´ and the Cosmos in 1976, it was a record North American audience; the previous mark of 46,000 in New York had stood for 50 years. When Sounders FC became the first MLS club to average 30,000, then 40,000 – yes, the world took notice. And the soccer community here took great pride while elsewhere it renews hope.

So, yes, size matters. If MLS Cup 2019 can crack the 70,000 plateau, it can only help. Help MLS and help Seattle clinch some (more) 2026 World Cup dates.

A History of Finals

Even on a smaller scale, Puget Sound soccer fans have always responded to a championship pairing. Seattle Pacific hosted and featured in NCAA Division II finals three times, each drawing exponentially bigger crowds – up to 7,000 – than the regular season. The Reign sold-out Starfire for the 2014 NWSL final after the Sounders won USL-1 there before a full house in 2007. In 1995 and ’96, fans turned out and showed solid support for Seattle’s first A-League finals. Tacoma set an indoor standard of 21,728 for MISL Game 7 in 1987. FC Seattle effectively tripled its typical gate for the Western Soccer Alliance championship in 1988. Anyway, you get the gist.

All those events heightened the sport’s profile and no doubt won some new fans. Yes, there will be bandwagon types, possibly even some first-timers, joining us Sunday. And yes, there may be some longtime fans left out. It’s not perfect, but it beats the alternative. Empty seats, declining attendance or, worse still, apathy is the enemy. Those who love this game want to stretch the circle, to share that love with thousands more.

‘Beat LA’ All Over Again

So much of what’s transpired this past fortnight reminds me of a week during my teens, when the Sounders of yore reeled off a string of five postseason upsets, including an unlikely road upset of the George Best-led LA Aztecs and 26-goal scorer Steve David. That win, which occurred mere yards away from LAFC’s current grounds, then fueled a frenzy for tickets to the second leg of the NASL semifinal, again against the Aztecs.

Back then, the season-ticket base was a fraction of today, and if you really wanted a ticket, you got in line, literally. Such was Sounders fever that the youthful me took part in four players going AWOL from Geoff Wall’s Fort Worden soccer camp, driving an hour to Winslow, ferrying across to the Kingdome and, yes, getting in line. I got a single ticket behind the north goal. I was one of more than 56,000 – the second-largest gate of the Kingdome era. It was also the loudest crowd, most memorably for Jocky Scott’s winner at our end, but at the final whistle and again when we knew the Sounders were moving to play Pele´and the Cosmos in Portland, the Dome shook. It was truly thunderous, and my ears were ringing much of the way back to Port Townsend.

Just One More Thing

And that’s the final piece to this equation. Big match. Big crowd. But you’ve got to be loud. We want to lift up our boys so that those extra runs and recovery runs are near-effortless for them. Bring on the noise, express your passion, go beyond your comfort zone.

See, records will be broken. They start playing toward another cup in about four months. But the sights, the sensations, the memories are going to last. Please, take a breath, put down the phone and promise to savor the atmosphere Sunday, then upload to your internal hard drive. You’ll have a story to tell.

The world’s going to hear about this, about 70,000 congregating for the final between two sides from opposite sides of the continent and the border. They’re going to see a sea of green and a speck of red. And they’re going to hear us, loud and clear, because this is when, here in Seattle, the cause and the crowd will combine to hit a fever pitch.

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