TUKWILA, Wash. — The question wasn’t quite yet finished when Tommy Dutra decided to fill in the space.
“As a local, have you given yourself a chance to ... are you ...” I sort of stumbled my way through the question not exactly sure how to word it.
“Getting goosebumps?” Dutra replied, and I swear there were goosebumps rising as he said it.
I wanted to know how much thought he’d given to what he would be feeling while walking out onto the CenturyLink Field pitch, 70,000 fans all joining in what I’m sure will be the most powerful “boom-boom-clap” any of us have ever heard. They’ll be there hoping to see the Sounders lift their second MLS Cup in four years, but they’ll also be sharing in an experience that is not just 11 years in the making, but more like 45. The Sounders have hosted various championship games throughout their multi-league history and they’ve even won a fair share of them in front of their own fans.
Sunday will be on a completely different scale. Dutra knows this as well as anyone, having participated in four of those previous home-soil championships.
“I have given it a lot of thought, maybe too much thought,” said Dutra, a Lacey native, a graduate of Timberline High School, a former Sounders A-League player and the Sounders’ goalkeeping coach since 2006. “In fact, on Monday I just had to get out of town. I was getting hit up on emails, on text and everything else. ‘How great is this?’
“Being a local guy, I’m a Sounder first and foremost. To be part of this is massive. It’s massive for everyone involved.”
Almost from the moment it became official that the Sounders would be hosting, there were signs this was going to be unlike any soccer match previously played in Seattle. Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer said that within 15 minutes of tickets being available, season-ticket holders had “tripled or quadrupled” the number that had been purchased in either of the two previous home playoff games. By Thursday morning, the entire lower-bowl had been sold out and seats in the 300s that could barely be given away over the past few years were being snapped up as quickly as they were being put on the market, despite prices steadily climbing past $100.
Sales were so robust that the public offering on Friday was over almost as soon as it began, with prospective online buyers who had gotten into the queue well before 10:00 a.m. being told tickets were sold out by the time they got to the front of the line.
The demand was so great that Hanauer said there was a 10,000-person waiting list for tickets and the team has been working to get inventory added, opening the possibility that this could end up being the most highly attended sporting event at CenturyLink Field.
Wherever you go around town, there are billboards, flags, 1,800-pound replica trophies, massive letters spelling out “MLS Cup” and other signs that “This. Is. A. Big. Deal.” Media outlets that usually ignore the Sounders are suddenly showing up at training sessions. The morning show anchors are promoting our ideas for making it more special.
Tens of thousands of people will descend on downtown for the match and a significant number of them will be there just to soak it all in, perfectly happy to watch the match on a big screen with a bunch of strangers.
To some degree, the buzz is what makes this event special from a community point of view. Nothing that happens on Sunday during the match is going to change that. If the Sounders’ local relevance wasn’t obvious before, it’s undeniable now. There will be a lasting effect, I have no doubt.
But don’t be fooled, Sunday’s result matters.
“This puts us on the map,” Sounders GM and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey said when I asked him if just hosting has the potential to be a transformational event for the organization. “It absolutely is a way to take us forward and a way to lift our organization up and hopefully take us up a notch. But the foundation of that is stability in ownership, stability in coaching, stability in player development and excellence in all those areas, analytics, scouting. Those are the things that will sustain us.
“Will this bring us to the attention of some additional people? I hope so. If we win, will that be an event that brings the city together? Yeah, I think it could. But I truly think it matters if you win or lose. If everyone shows up and we get blown out, that’s not going to be the same experience if we take this in and get the title in front of our fans. What we have is an opportunity and maybe that opportunity could be transformative but I think we’re jumping ahead a step if we say ‘oh the game is here, it’s transformative.’”
Sounders right back Kelvin Leerdam put it more succinctly when asked how the team can reward the fans for their support: “We’re going to try to win the final. That’s the only way you can have an amazing feeling for what you’ve achieved.”
Rather than hide from the stakes, the Sounders are embracing them. They know this is the most important match in Sounders history, that playing at home carries weight that their two previous trips to MLS Cup lacked.
Making sure they don’t get overwhelmed by those emotions, while still acknowledging them, is a delicate balance. There might not be anyone better able to find that balance than Brian Schmetzer.
One of the few people who can say he has an even closer connection to the Sounders community than Dutra is Schmetzer. The Schmetzer bloodline effectively traces soccer in Seattle. His family owned and operated what was surely the first local sporting goods store to specialize in soccer gear. He was a teenaged signing of the NASL club, a hardened veteran by the time indoor soccer took over the market and he hung onto his dream of making a career in soccer by coaching youths, working construction, and saying yes a lot.
That included the time in 2001 when Hanauer, fresh off buying the team, asked Schmetzer to coffee where he’d offer him the head job. Schmetzer repaid the faith by posting the best record in the league his first year and then winning titles in 2004 and 2007. Although he was passed over for the head job when Sigi Schmid was hired to lead the MLS team, Schmetzer hung around as an assistant before taking over midway through 2016 and leading the Sounders to their first MLS Cup.
What’s remarkable about Schmetzer’s career is how he’s never acted as though he was too good or too important for any of it. He maintains his ECS membership because he feels a kindred spirit with supporters. He shows up to fan events because that’s probably what he always felt a Sounders head coach should do. He knows as well as anyone how tenuous a city’s love affair with a team, especially one that plays soccer, can be.
I often tell a story about an interview I conducted with Schmetzer when he was still the interim head coach in 2016. I had my infant daughter with me that day, but had been trying to schedule the interview for weeks and asked him if it was okay to bring her. Schmetzer expressed no concerns, welcomed us into his office, invited us to have lunch with the team and helped me arrange for one of the Sounders media staffers to mind my daughter while we did the interview.
As you might imagine, my daughter immediately woke from her nap and the rather frazzled Sounders staffer immediately begged off babysitting duty. Schmetzer suggested we try the interview with my daughter in my lap. Again, that went about as well as you might imagine and after a couple tries we decided to call it off.
At no point did Schmetzer act annoyed or put off, and he happily helped me back to my car.
I think about that interview often. How he’ll call out Sounder at Heart when we write something critical, without making it seem as though he’s trying to keep us in line. I appreciate the back and forth, and I think he does too.
I suspect he knows that most MLS coaches would not behave this way. Whether they’d all admit it or not, I think they know that it humanizes them. It makes it easier to look at them as just guys doing their jobs, not tortured geniuses. I suspect Schmetzer knows he could improve his status by acting more aloof. I suspect he also knows his engagement is exactly what makes him successful.
During this run, Schmetzer seems to be finally getting the due he’s long deserved. Analysts who were once quick to dismiss him as succeeding only because of his unique circumstances are now acknowledging that there’s a real soccer mind beneath that substitute science teacher facade. But Schmetzer just keeps deflecting praise by highlighting the contributions of his assistants, his players, and all the way down to the people selling tickets. He’s surrounded himself with the only man to have won both MLS MVP and coach of the year, a World Cup Veteran and a Champions League winner. It takes a certain confidence to do that.
Surely, he knows what winning on Sunday will do for his coaching legacy. He’s already one of just five coaches to lead a team to three MLS Cup Finals appearances and he’d become just the fourth to have won it twice.
But I genuinely don’t think he’s worried about that. He’s far more concerned with not disappointing fans who have gone through the emotional journey of a season during which no less than the soul of the club was being debated. He’s worried about properly fulfilling a legacy made possible by generations of coaches before him. That’s a lot of pressure, no doubt. But it’s also what will drive him. We should be comforted in knowing he’ll be feeling goosebumps, too. There’s no one I’d rather put my faith in to finish the story than Schmetzer.