When I planned my first trip to Seattle to experience a Seattle Sounders match at CenturyLink Field, I wanted to make sure I saw a little bit of everything. I'd heard and read about how great the experience was and, while I believed the hype, I needed to see it for myself.
I've been to an MLS Cup Final and seen games live in Houston, Dallas, Kansas City and Los Angeles, but nothing compares to Seattle. That's not a shot at any other MLS fan base, a vast majority of you are doing a great job ... but you're not Seattle.
Many MLS experiences suffer from feeling like contained events, attended by a group of "in the know" fans. You really don't get the sense that the city as a whole has embraced the team, especially in places like Houston and Dallas -- where I have most of my live game experiences -- where there is an on-going struggle to gain a foothold in the crowded sports and general culture landscape of the city.
In Seattle you genuinely feel like a Sounders game is a big deal, right up there with the Seahawks and the Mariners -- OK, ahead of the Mariners these days -- and while there's still a long way to go to match the Seahawks in terms of consistently being able to pack the stadium, they're not that far behind.
When you compare what the Sounders have accomplished against every other MLS market, there's some obvious separation in terms of attracting a fanbase. It's a bit discouraging that other teams that have been around much longer than the Sounders haven't come close to making the same cultural impact. In fact, several border on irrelevance with the average citizen or sports fan in their city. In some extreme cases, average citizens don't know their city's MLS team exists.
I was in the city from the morning until late after the match against the Vancouver Whitecaps on June 8 and as I traveled around doing fun, touristy stuff on my first visit to Seattle, I saw Sounders gear everywhere. T-shirts, jerseys, jackets, hats; it was pretty clear that the Sounders were playing that day.
Even more impressive were the days following the match. There was plenty of rave green everywhere, and if you were wearing any soccer related gear at all, random strangers will randomly ask you about the game. This is common cultural behavior around sports in major American cities but it's usually reserved for NFL, MLB and NCAA teams. In Seattle, soccer is creating the buzz and the Sounders are big time.
People may not always go to games but they are aware of the brand and the team. They also talk about how they need to get to a game if they don't already go, and that's a big deal when it comes to MLS.
When you walk up to CenturyLink Field a couple hours before kick-off, you'll see the something unmatched, in my opinion, in MLS. While many cities feature the traditional parking lot tailgating at or near the stadium, Seattle is forced to be different due to city restrictions. It's certainly not a deterrent though thanks to a multitude of bars near the stadium and a large fan zone area next to CenturyLink itself.
It feels like the atmosphere you see around an NFL match or a big time NCAA football game. It's not quite as big as what you see across the SEC, for example, but it's not far away.
The Emerald City Supporters' march to the match is unlike anything I've experienced at any sporting event. Beginning in Occidental Park, a large contingent of fans snakes their way through the concrete canyons just north of the stadium, singing all the way. Their voices echo off the buildings and you can hear them coming well before they arrive near you.
It creates another layer of anticipation, it's a reminder that kickoff is getting closer and gets you in the mood to watch some soccer ... just in case you needed the boost. They pass bars and pubs filled with fans, people watching from apartment and condominium balconies, it feels like more than just another game, it feels like an event. That's something we're still getting good at when it comes to soccer in the United States.
Sure it helps being in a large stadium with a surrounding community that has already been developed to embrace and support both CenturyLink and Safeco Field. It was a ready made for the situation and the Sounders have done an excellent job taking advantage of it.
Even the cheesy and cliche marching band, called Soundwave, adds a fun layer to the match day experience. They follow the march to the match and stand outside the north end of the stadium and play as a huge group fans surround them and watch them perform.
MLS fans make fun of the band -- I've done it in the past -- but we shouldn't, because it's all part of a master plan that's being gloriously executed by the Sounders.
People in the stadium care about the team, they pay attention, they know the game and they participate in several stadium-wide chants started by the supporters groups on the south end. The Seattle Sounders call back chant and "boom boom clap" aren't new to soccer, but they've been adopted by Sounders fans and they do it right.
It's impressive on television, but it's even more impressive in person. While people have grown tired of hearing about how great things are in Seattle, there's a reason people keep talking about it. They've got it right.