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Sounders popularity soars while others still dismiss soccer

The Seattle Sounders surpassed the MLS attendance record for the fifth consecutive year when the crowd of 66,216 brought the 2013 season average to 44,038. (AP/Ted S. Warren)

When 66,000 soccer crazed fans packed CenturyLink Field for the Seattle Sounders final regular season game last weekend, it pushed the average attendance to over 44,000. But despite smashing Major League Soccer records again, there are still plenty of sports fans around the area who just don’t get it.

“It takes too long to score a goal, it’s boring, there’s not a lot of set plays. It’s like watching tetherball,” says Seahawks fan Bryan Buckalew.

His complaints are common. And Matt Johnson, the host of the Sounders pre and post-game coverage on KIRO Radio, doesn’t try to sway them.

“I can’t help them. Either they get it or they don’t,” he says.

I was one of those guys. Having never attended a match in person, I thought soccer was slow and boring with little to no scoring. Just a bunch of guys running around kicking a ball with little rhyme or reason. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

So what’s the appeal? Johnson and I agree it’s both the play on the field and the atmosphere off.

“The physicality of it, the gracefulness of it, the teamwork aspect. It’s all of those things. In the NFL, all 11 guys have to be doing the right thing. Soccer’s right there. It is just so fun to watch.”

As for the lack of scoring, I thought it was pretty stupid that people could actually enjoy a 1-0 game, or even a scoreless tie. But then seeing how hard the guys work, running non-stop for 90 minutes, my attitude totally changed. It really is a “beautiful game” as it’s called. To borrow a well-worn cliche, it really is as much about the journey as the destination.

“Every chance is so precious. The stakes on every possession are so much higher,” Johnson says. “And that’s why goals are celebrated like the birth of a child.”

Then there are the fans. Tens of thousands standing for the entire game, riveted by nearly every moment. Chanting, flag waving. They get into it like nothing I’ve ever experienced at most other sporting events. And it’s unique – more festive than rabid like Seahawks games.

“I’ve been to championship games all over the world and Seattle rivals anyone. And no one stands like Sounders fans do,” Johnson says.

For those who have yet to climb on the Sounders bandwagon, this weekend isn’t a bad time to give it a ride. Seattle faces the archrival Portland Timbers in a two-game playoff. The first game is Saturday night at CenturyLink Field. The second next Thursday in Portland.

For the uninitiated, it’s a bit of an unfamiliar setup compared with traditional American sports. The winner is the team that scores the most goals total between the two games.

“You just have to be there,” says Johnson. “It’s right up there with the Yankees and Red Sox or Seahawks and 49ers. It’s the proximity of the towns. It’s Portland with a little chip on their shoulders. It’s Seattle dismissing Portland like the little brother. And the games always features huge drama and theater.”

Just don’t expect a ton of goals. And don’t expect the haters, like Buckalew, to suddenly change their tune.

“I’m happy a Seattle team is doing so well, but I still think soccer is dumb,” he says.

“Oh well,” Johnson laughs. “I can’t convince that guy. And luckily I don’t need to even try.”

Catch the Sounders live on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM. Coverage of Saturday’s playoff game against Portland gets underway with the pre-game show at 6:30 p.m.

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