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Notes from the North End: What it’s like with limited capacity

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It was a little eerie.

Greg Van Belle

It’s May. The Sounders are at the top of the early season table and every power ranking, but the national media still can’t get over their obsession with Los Angeles and Atlanta. The Timbers’ social media is chock full of excuses for their early season swoon…So aside from reduced capacity at Lumen Field, everything seems pretty normal.

This month let’s take a look at what it actually looks like from the North End in a reduced capacity stadium.

What it’s like on matchday

We were on the bus on our way to the first home match of the season when I got a text from our friend Eirik: “Already at the stadium. It’s eerie in here.” I know many of you will be headed to Lumen Field for the first time this weekend, so here’s a little glimpse into what to expect based on two reduced-capacity experiences.

As excited as I was to see the Rave Green play in person after a year away, I was anxious about returning to the stands. Not because of COVID-19, but just because I didn’t know what the atmosphere would be like. What would a mostly empty stadium feel like? Would it feel worth it to be there without Sound Wave, ECS, and that little wedge of away fans up in the corner over my shoulder?

Eirik was right. It was eerie. No lines at security*. From our pregame perch at the picnic tables near the north gates, we could clearly hear the players warming up on the field. Kicked balls audibly rattled off the ad boards. Coaches' voices carried all the way out to us. Thirty minutes before kickoff the entire north end of the stadium had the feel of a minor league baseball game. That’s usually when we start our pregame preparations: hit the restrooms, go to our favorite spot for beer and wine, and get to our seats in time for all of the usual pomp and circumstance of a home game.

First Takeaway: It’s actually pretty nice to walk the concourses and use the restrooms without the crush of 40,000 fans around you.

Second Takeaway: The Sounders and those in charge of concessions have unwittingly created exactly what they were trying to avoid by understaffing and closing most of the concessions. I realize it is a cost-saving measure, but it is frankly a little absurd that they enforce masks while people are at their seats but then let crowds of people queue up for the few concessions that are open. It’s a small gripe, but there it is.

Third Takeaway: Especially on opening night, we desperately missed the ECS section. The drums, the singing, the chants…it was all mostly missing and the atmosphere suffers for it. The same with Sound Wave. Even just having them play the goal celebration and the corner kick stings adds a depth to the ambience that is noticeably absent. However, it was nice to have ECS members spread around the stadium a bit. It brings the songs and chants to the general population and I think helps otherwise reluctant participants to get in the game. I’ve always wanted more of the stadium to learn and embrace ECS songs, and maybe we’ve stumbled upon a marketing possibility here…

Fourth Takeaway: I miss having away fans in the stadium. One of the joys of sitting in the North End is being close to the sliver of away fans. The joy doesn’t come from being near them. It comes from clocking their descent into sadness over the course of 90 minutes. They show up rowdy and slowly realize that our beers are 7% alcohol and their team is going home without three points. That said, it did upset me to see fans in Minnesota gear walking around the stadium. When we’re limited to 7,000 fans (soon to be 10,000), every one of those 7,000 better be a Sounders supporter. I personally know Alliance members who could not get seats at face value because others were buying their whole allotment and selling them at inflated prices. Be better than that, Seattle.

Fifth and Final Takeaway: I predicted about 3 months ago that I would be a blubbering idiot when I finally got back into the stadium to watch the boys play. I was not wrong. Seeing the players stream out of the tunnel, participating in the call and response lineup announcements, and hearing Jonathan Wright hit all the notes had me in tears. I hope none of you have forgotten how magical our home ground can be, and if you haven’t been yet this season, I hope you let it wash over you that we are back, the team is in great form, and there is more light at the end of this tunnel.

What to watch

The drama and chaos around the proposed European Super League brought promotion and relegation back into the social media soccer conversations in recent weeks. I’m sure most of you who follow the sport as closely as I do were roped into conversations with casual fans about the Premier League, relegation, and American money in foreign sports. I’ll save the promotion/relegation conversation for another time and instead offer you the best way to show your friends and family how Premier League soccer really works: Sunderland ‘Til I Die on Netflix.

If you can get through the cloying song over the opening credits, this two-season reality show is just absolutely stunning. I first watched it early in the pandemic and was amazed at the access the film crew had and the quality of the cinematography, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Quick spoiler to get it out of the way: Sunderland ‘Til I Die follows the huge Sunderland club through relegation. You get to see firsthand how the threat and reality of being sent down a league has on the team, the owners, the staff, and most importantly in the conversation over the Super League, the fans.

Watching Sunderland ‘Til I Die offers us a glimpse inside a English city with a struggling blue-collar economy. Almost every establishing shot shows the massive Stadium of Light and the low-slung industrial neighborhoods surrounding it. The show follows the same trajectory. We learn about the city and its people through the lens of the soccer club, which was established in 1879 but has not won a first-division title since the 1930s. On the surface, this is a show about a soccer team, but it is really a documentary study of supporter culture, economics, and history.

Sunderland supporters are, as expected, rabid fans of their club. Most have long family histories tying them to both the shipyards of Sunderland and to the club itself. They go hand in hand. They are intertwined elements of the city’s identity. We see the men and women of Sunderland struggle in a modern economy that wants to walk on past the historic centers of industry. And we see their club struggle under the financial strain of relegation.

It’s a beautiful docuseries that at times makes the viewer wonder if it is real. The soccer action is captured from angles and with cameras that render it cinematic. The supporters they feature seem at times to be far too on-brand to not be actors. But this is all real, and it is a lesson in the value of soccer to a community.

I dare say some Sounders supporters will see themselves in the Sunderland supporters. Strip away the accents so thick they occasionally need subtitles despite technically being English, and the devotion to the club translates to any major soccer team. The match day rituals, the celebratory tattoos, and the chartered busses for away matches all ring true. But so does the value of having that team, win or lose, as part of the fabric of a community.

And right now, watching a once mighty EPL team struggle in relegation and attempt to build its way back into the top tier is a lesson in fandom and support that the owners of the would-be Super League squads would have been wise to pay attention to. It also makes me crave promotion and relegation in American sports, though it is pretty clear such a thing will never happen. We can dream…

What to read

I promise I won’t give you reading homework every month, but recently I re-read what I consider to be one of the most interesting soccer books ever published. How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer. My students this fall will find it on their reading list, and now it’s on yours as well. The syllabus for my fall class is essentially that sport is a microcosm of the society in which it is played, and there is no better book to illustrate this concept that Foer’s. You’re welcome to join my class if you want more.

How Soccer Explains the World is a chapter by chapter look at soccer and supporter culture around the world, from Eastern Europe to Africa to South America. Foer teaches the reader political and sociological history hidden under a veneer of soccer. Reading about clubs that were formed or re-designed purely to amplify racist political positions casts light on hooligan culture and the otherwise mindboggling persistence of racism in such a global sport. Tying the style of play to the way of life of the surrounding community seems obvious, but Foer’s explanations dig deeper than you expect.

One striking thing is how much of soccer around the world is a constant interplay among the team owners, casual fans, rabid supporters, and the game on the pitch. We have borrowed from over a century of soccer to end up where we are in the United States today. While our teams in MLS are all corporate franchises, they are run differently from teams in other sports. We have brought forward, for better or worse, the political actions of supporters groups. We have adopted a mild form of hooliganism and anger for our rival clubs born of nothing in particular other than a distaste for the opponent’s owners, players, and supporters.

The true supporter clashes that we have seen around the world are based in something much deeper and darker than being from different cities. These are long term political and racial dividing lines that have persisted through the years. And even as big money flows in to these clubs and the owners do their best to distance themselves from the political past, you cannot erase over a century of history with a new stadium and new colors.

The best rivalry in American soccer is undeniably Seattle v. Portland. And while there are a few pretty deep divides in the ownership and management styles of the two clubs, at the end of the day Portland supporters are economically, politically, and socially fairly indistinguishable from Seattle supporters.

But imagine for a moment an American soccer scene with more sharp political and historical divides. We have a team called the Union in MLS. Now let’s say that team has been around for 100 years. At the same time, let’s pretend there is a team in the South called the Confederates. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see where those clubs would be today and how their matches against one another would go. That is the reality of a lot of clubs around the world to this day.

Imagine a team whose ownership openly embraces modern fascism and the fans that team would attract. Reading Foer’s book makes it clear how the propensity for violence from groups like the Proud Boys could spill over into soccer stadiums if not for the efforts of like-minded supporters and team management.

One final tidbit from Foer’s book before we wrap up and get ready to watch some soccer:

Among the things we have pulled forward into modern soccer is terminology. Even in the US we call the field a pitch, a game a match, and the team a club. These are fumbling inaccurate translations, but we still use them. In American soccer, using the term “club” conjures up images of the team and the fans and the community working together to create something larger than any of those single entities could be. But the term actually comes from Brazilian soccer, where the teams were actually part of larger social clubs. You would join your local club for socializing and recreation and business connections, but the centerpiece of the entertainment at that club would be the soccer team.

I let you imagine what that would look like in Seattle while I say goodbye for this month.

See you on the North End. Go Sounders.

*The new security procedures for this season (mostly changes to how security searches your clear bags and other items) are a real improvement.