Like almost every American suburban kid of my generation, I played soccer. I played soccer on one of those teams that was “coached” by the parent of the best player, where referees didn’t always show up, and where parents were pressed into assistant referee duties. Our uniforms were sponsored by a parent’s equipment rental company and our practice field had one “uphill” goal and one “downhill” goal. I loved playing. I looked forward to practices and games. I hated being on the sidelines when I was subbed off. I wanted games to last all day.
Professional soccer wasn’t on television much, and I had never seen it played at a high level. I didn’t even know what real soccer looked like, because what we played was typical schoolyard ball, where everyone chased the ball at the same time and the slow or disinterested kids were relegated to playing fullback, apparently the least athletically taxing position on the field.
When I was in second grade, Mrs. Hess, our teacher, took me to a Sounders match in the Kingdome as a reward for something I did in class that I can no longer remember. I assure you it wasn’t for my schoolwork.
Seeing the Sounders play on that patchy carpet in the Kingdome was astonishing. I was hooked. The game was beautiful. The space, the movement off the ball, the strategic positioning… I wanted to play like that. I wanted my bunchball teammates to play like that. I wanted a coach who knew what the game was supposed to look like.
I never really got the chance. Select soccer was out of reach for my family, and a combination of terrible coaching and other interests pulled me away from varsity soccer at school. Plus, it turns out, I wasn’t really very good — I was just fast. I drifted away from soccer after that. I watched some international soccer, I watched some Champions League. But aside from the incredible 1994 World Cup team with Tony Meola, Cobi Jones, and Eric Wynalda, I never really got sucked back in.
Then our kids moved out of the house. Stick with me here.
With the previously incessant swirl of kid activities gone, my girlfriend (rightly) worried that we would fall into boring lifestyle traps. Sensing that I probably wouldn’t be her best bet for symphony or opera tickets, she bought us season tickets to the Sounders to make sure we had something to do together week on week.
It was the single largest gift anyone could ever give me.
Not long into our first season, matchday become my religion. I wanted all of it. The pregame pub crawls, the March to the Match, Soundwave, Boom Boom Clap. I wanted the songs and the ritual. My wardrobe turned Rave Green. The team’s logos are tattooed on my shoulder.
Then late last year, I was talking to my friend and sports radio legend Mike “Gasman” Gastineau. I had just lost a writing gig when a magazine I worked for dissolved. I jokingly said that I should find a way to write for the Sounders, since the club consumed my brain anyway. Mike sent me to Sounder at Heart, and for no real reason, Jeremiah Oshan was open to a middle-aged English professor doing some freelance work for them. I was invited to this year’s media day and started pitching ideas for stories, most of which went nowhere. But I was inside. This was going to be an amazing year, despite the team’s early exit from the CONCACAF tournament.
And then the world shut down.
No one knew if it would be for a month or for a year or what was going to happen. Home match dates came and went on the calendar. We sat at home. Planned trips to Nashville, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Dallas were canceled.
When the MLS is Back Tournament was announced, I joined my ECS sisters and brothers and begged the team to stay home and stay safe. Florida was a Covid-19 petri dish and I didn’t want any of our coaches or players to get sick. But I watched. I watched in part hoping for storylines to keep my toe in the sports journalism world, but also because I love this club and I love the brand of soccer they play. It was early in the pandemic, remember, and the tournament seemed like little more than a fleeting attempt by MLS to generate at least a little revenue and stay afloat until 2021. Those few games scheduled around the stifling heat and humidity in Orlando might have been the only Sounders soccer we got in 2020. At least, that’s how I justified watching when I knew they shouldn’t be playing.
When the irregular regular season started back up I was again quite skeptical (I even wrote an unpublished article about soccer without fans being a waste of time that I still think was pretty good). But this team pulled me in and they did everything right. Little did I know then how much I would need the team as the pandemic, civil rights protests, and the presidential election droned on month after month.
Following the team, tuning in to every online press conference, and watching every match on television provided a source of light in this very dark year. Interviewing players and writing about the team kept me engaged and, dare I say, happy.
It would have been easy for the team to dash those feelings, however, and I want to thank the Sounders for doing things the right way. We didn’t have the problems Nashville or Dallas had. We had no games canceled due to our club’s handling of the pandemic. They kept our players safe. They were on the forefront of the Black Lives Matter protests, using their collective and individual voices to fight for justice and equality. I looked at the Sounders and the ECS and I saw family. I connected with fans on Twitter. I saw a collection of human beings who created a little hope in a pretty overwhelming sea of despair.
And the Sounders played some really great soccer in incredibly tough conditions.
The MLS Cup final result notwithstanding, I could make the argument that the 2020 Sounders were one of the best teams they have ever assembled. They were really a joy to watch play, and I considered all of it a bonus. Some soccer was better than no soccer. When rumors of Brad Smith’s return started flying around I was energized. Roman Torres came home. Alex Roldan (again, MLS Cup final notwithstanding) had the breakout year I was hoping for. Stefan Frei moved to an island, which somehow just seemed right. Jordan Morris’s dog got an Instagram account. It was a good year in Sounders land.
Their playoff run was exciting and engaging. The 3-2 result against Minnesota United will be remembered forever as one of the most improbable wins in club history, tarnished only by the absence of fans.
None of us will ever forget this terrible year despite our desire to do so. Luckily the Seattle Sounders provided some love, some hope, some joy, and some distraction. It was incredibly important for me and I know for most of you as well. So I simply want to thank everyone who made it happen.
Thank you to the entire club. Staff, coaches, and players. I know they wanted to play and win for their own reasons, but in doing so they made this utterly horrible year in American history a little more tolerable and a little brighter. Thank you Coach Schmetzer for your steady hand and fatherly tending of the club. Thank you to everyone at Sounder at Heart, and especially Jeremiah Oshan, for helping me stay connected to this club in a more intimate way than before. Thank you to the Sounders communications staff – Alex Caulfield, Matt Winter, and Kelly Shultz – for your time and effort in this very strange year. I hope the 2021 season provides us all with a little more normalcy.