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Postgame Pontifications: Small crowd, important atmosphere

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Having fans back in the stands was a welcome change.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — At some point last year, it was a common dream to imagine a sort of V-Day moment. A day when we’d all collectively celebrate the end of this pandemic with a parade, fireworks, hugging everyone we saw on the street and, heck, maybe a soccer game.

It was fun to imagine, a sort of light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

But almost as soon as the reality of the pandemic set in — when we realized that this wouldn’t be just a two-week pause while the world settled down — the reality of the vaccine rollout started to become clear. There wouldn’t be one day where all of us could suddenly celebrate together. Rather, it was going to come in waves, waves spread out over many months. We’d get there eventually, but probably only after other, less communal segments of life were starting to feel normal again.

In the meantime, we’d need to get comfortable with more gradual changes. We’d start having small dinner parties, maybe outdoor barbecues or attending outdoor sporting events that still required us to wear masks, remain physically distant from people outside our “pods,” and probably missing some — but not all — of the things we love about such gatherings.

None of that should diminish the import of events like Friday night’s Seattle Sounders season-opener.

I rode my bike to the game, hoping to assess the mood outside the stadium. While clearly a diminished version from the pre-pandemic times, it was comforting to see a sizable crowd milling about between Pioneer Square and Lumen Field. That Sounders fans were mixed in with those attending the Seattle Mariners game surely helped in that regard and I’ll admit I was a little squeamish at seeing people packed into outdoor seating at several establishments, but I’m choosing to believe that at least the servers have been fully vaccinated by now. The mood inside was similarly celebratory, if still relatively muted.

Sure, the announced crowd of 7,042 felt small. The constant din of singing from the Brougham End was clearly absent. There was a disconnect whenever random fans tried to get a “Come on Seattle!/Fight and Win!” chant going. Even the introductory boom-boom-clap lacked its normal coordination.

But don’t let anyone tell you that it wasn’t an important step forward on our path to recovery. I seriously doubt any fan in attendance would have preferred to wait until some still unknowable time in the future when we could have had a more “proper” return to Lumen Field. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past year, it’s that the dangers we face are just as psychological as they are physical. Doing it this way is surely the prudent decision — loosening restrictions without fully letting go of the reins — and will hopefully set us on the right path.

While the match didn’t feel normal by a pre-pandemic standard, it did feel worlds different than the last time I attended a match in person. That was last summer, shortly after the Sounders had returned from MLS is Back. I attended two of those fanless matches, but decided that was more than enough. Aside from the newsworthiness of seeing what it was like to watch a match completely devoid of atmosphere, I just didn’t see much value in being there in person when I was afforded effectively the same access from the comfort and safety of my home.

Truth be told, I also found it a bit depressing. A not insignificant part of what drew me to the Sounders as a new Seattle resident in 2009 was the singing, chanting, choreos and general atmosphere that surrounds matches. I learned to love the soccer as well, but I’ve never grown tired of feeling like I was part of an “event” whenever I watched matches in person.

Small crowd though it was, this at least had many of the same trappings. The fans in attendance screamed the names of the starting lineup, the national anthem was belted out, we could again feel the heat of the flamethrowers and the roar of the crowd when João Paulo opened the scoring with one of the best goals I’ve ever witnessed in person.

The Sounders seemed to feed off the energy, too. Despite a lackluster first half, they seemed determined not to send their much-missed fans home unhappy. When Fredy Montero followed up his masterful assist by closing out the scoring with a golazo of his own, you could close your eyes and almost imagine the crowd being much closer to capacity.

Someday, perhaps relatively soon, we’ll get the real thing. For now, I’ll take what I can get.