It was just one game, but after much talk we finally saw Seattle Sounders FC 2 in action against a real opponent. It was everything we'd hoped it would be. No, it wasn't quite as promised -- the roster is a bit smaller and a bit less centered around local products as we'd been led to believe it would be -- but it was still very impressive.
Here are our perceptions from three different perspectives:
As a fan...
Starfire is still as intimate as it ever was: As a fan in the stands you do not lose the intimacy you feel when you witness the first team Sounders at Starfire. It's just as exciting, just as thrilling. The ECS is loud and no matter where you sit, they're near. Smoke pours from their section and the stands reverberate with passion. My half of the grandstand didn't stand for the match, probably due to the number of children who otherwise would not be able to watch, but we had these new seats that made sitting much more palatable.
At the same time, it feels like a small town experience: Sigi Schmid was sitting 20 feet away from me, and we were shoulder to shoulder at one time, waiting to walk down from the seats. The woman sitting next to me was able to take her picture with him. Chris Henderson sat 10 feet away from me, a less identifiable figure who blended in and was able to enjoy the match. The players themselves stayed to sign autographs. There's a connection that you get watching the Sounders at Starfire and it was not lost at this match.
There's more beer: Though there weren't food trucks available, there was a lot more beer being sold, and it will be available for every game. At the top of the grandstand there was a vendor selling a few varieties of beer. And though there was no beer garden, its necessity is lessened with the fact you can buy beer from multiple other locations through Starfire, something which has not been possible until now.
We love free food: It's a small thing, but the food for press was different. I know most readers don't care about pressbox food, but this matters because when Sounders FC use Starfire for Open Cup and Reserve games the food was either Mad Pizza or a sandwich shop and bottled water. For S2 there was some kind of beef in sauce, roasted potatoes, a bleu cheese-walnut salad with raspberry vinaigrette and beverage choices were Coke, Diet Coke and bottled water. There were even single serve desserts. Raising the level of food could be a one-off to celebrate the first ever match or it could be an indicator about a higher level of presentation at Starfire.
But it's not just food: That upleveling of presentation included a lot more staff dedicated to streaming and statistics. In Reserve games there were occasional debates between team PR and media about who got various assists. That is no longer. USLSoccer.com has a live stats system with people manning that locally. Starfire Stadium's pressbox is small, but the team and league managed to shoehorn a lot of people and tech into that space. They're using it to present a better product to the fans and media members.
The online presentation was very good, too: You've probably never heard of Nathan Murphy and Aaron Heinzen, but anyone tuning into the S2 YouTube feed got a quick introduction. Neither are what would be called "known" commodities in the broadcasting world, but they were polished and on top of their games, rattling off polished play-by-play and insightful color, respectively. And, it should be said, Murphy and Heinzen both have experience. Murphy has been calling PDL games for several years and Heinzen used to work on the Timbers' USL broadcasts. They've set a high bar for the other two broadcast teams.
Overall, less Reserve-League-y: From the amount of data presented, to the swag handed out to media, there was a clear intent to show that S2 is both a second team and something fully professional. It's a significant shift from the Reserve League. The Reserve League was just an add-on, something that was done more for player fitness than anything else. Little was done to appeal to local media and get them out to the games. Sounders FC 2 is more than that. Not only do the games count, the staff working at the matches are either the same as those at MLS games, or they are people who will be working at the next level soon, just like the players.
About the team...
Pablo Rossi "tries a lot of sh!t": If you've been watching the Sounders over the past couple of years, you've grown accustomed to all kinds of audacious play. Back-heels, chips, flying-ninja kicks, no-look passes ... all of it. But Rossi seems intent on pushing that envelope even further.
It's not just that he tried a shot from midfield in the 6th minutes or even that he hit an overhead pass a couple minutes late, it's that he constantly looked to press forward. And by constantly, I mean I'm not sure he made more than a couple square passes all night. It's fun to watch, but it probably drives coaches crazy. Of course, that style also led directly to two goals. Rossi scored on a well-taken free kick and also made this pass to set up Sam Garza's goal.
The roster may be thin, but somehow it's also deep: As of right now, there aren't enough players signed directly to S2 to field a full team. You wouldn't have known it from how they played on Saturday. Despite a roster featuring nine "on loan" players, S2 looked reasonably cohesive and managed to connect on quite a few sequences that required a good deal of anticipation. They also got two of their four goals from players off the bench, both of whom were former first-round picks in the MLS SuperDraft. They did all this against the defending USL champions -- albeit a version that was missing their on-loan players and their two leading scorers. Either way, S2 showed they can be very competitive in this league.
Victor Mansaray is very special: It should be said right off that from Minute 1 to Minute 90-plus there were players who had a bigger impact on the game than the 18-year-old high school senior. But if there was one moment everyone will be talking about, it was provided by Mansaray. Just look at this pass again:
It should be said that, like Rossi, Mansaray makes the pass and then simply admires it. While that looks cool on camera, it's probably not ideal in terms of improving as a soccer player. But we'll forgive his youthful exuberance and focus on the absolute majesty of that outside-of-the-boot pass. It bends absolutely perfectly into the path of an onrushing Cristian Roldan, who couldn't help but score. It was just one moment, to be sure, but it showed the kind of potential the Sounders saw in him when they made Mansaray the youngest HGP signing in their history. Get excited people, this is going to be fun.