The Sound and the Glory
How the Seattle Sounders Showed Major League Soccer How to Win Over America
About the Author
On the afternoon of November 13, 2007, a group of soccer fans stood shoulder to shoulder at the George & Dragon pub in the Seattle neighborhood of Fremont. The occasion was a badly kept secret: the city was to be granted an expansion franchise to become the 15th team in North America’s top professional division, Major League Soccer.
The mood was festive. Despite the lunchtime hour, Boddingtons, Guinness and local favorite Manny’s Pale Ale flowed freely. Drew Carey, the game show host and new team’s celebrity co-owner, bought a round of beers for the standing-room-only crowd.
Adrian Hanauer, though, was unquestionably the man of the hour.
A local businessman whose family owned a successful bedding manufacturing company, Hanauer dated his soccer fandom to the first time he caught a glimpse of the North American Soccer League Sounders at the age of eight in the ’70s. He became the managing partner of a minor-league iteration of the club in 2002, an investment so shaky he once convinced his players to begrudgingly take pay cuts just to keep the team solvent. In this moment, in 2007, scanning a sea of beaming faces, that initial sacrifice was worth it.
Few patrons were aware how close Hanauer had been to landing an MLS franchise two years earlier — and that he viewed the delay as a blessing in disguise.
For most of the 2000s, the league stood on trembling legs. In 2002, it contracted two of its 12 teams, the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny. The U.S. men’s national team’s run to the World Cup quarterfinals that same year inspired a brief uptick in interest, but when Hanauer submitted his first expansion bid in 2005, he did so with trepidation. When the league went with Salt Lake City instead, Hanauer reacted partially with disappointment but with an underlying sense that it was for the best. In the minor leagues, at least operating costs were lower. At the time, MLS was a risky bet.
A decade on from that announcement at the George & Dragon, Hanauer’s club and the league he eventually joined were almost unrecognizable. By 2016, Major League Soccer boasted 22 teams, with a second Los Angeles club on the way and a Miami franchise theoretically in the offing. MLS HQ proudly unveiled a list of 10 cities competitively bidding for the final four slots in what the league said would ultimately settle at 28. Commissioner Don Garber’s oft-stated goal of becoming an internationally relevant league remained outlandish but was no longer incomprehensible.
If the world’s game hadn’t yet broken into mainstream American consciousness, professional soccer was on steadier ground on these shores than ever before. In many ways, it had Hanauer’s Seattle Sounders to thank. The Sounders, along with the Toronto FC team that was part of the same wave of expansion, created a blueprint that every successful new franchise since has borrowed.
Whereas the original clubs catered to a suburban crowd, building youth practice fields next to no-frills stadiums in an attempt to draw in soccer moms, Seattle played in the heart of its city. It catered to and worked with its most dedicated fans, cultivating a supporters’ culture that was at the time rare in MLS. By sharing business operations with the NFL’s Seahawks, the club was lent immediate credibility.
The payoff resulted in attendance figures that would be the envy of teams even in the biggest leagues in the world. The Sounders averaged more than 42,000 fans per home game in 2016, the second-largest figure in the Western Hemisphere and in the top 35 internationally — topping juggernauts such as Chelsea in England and AC Milan in Italy.
Yet as the club continued to mature, Hanauer wanted more. Midway through the 2016 season, he and the Sounders brass began drawing up ambitious plans to sell out the entirety of CenturyLink Field within the next decade. Timed around what they hoped would be a United-States-co-hosted 2026 World Cup, Seattle aimed to fill all 67,000 seats for every game, which would vault it comfortably into the top 10 in the world.
Before those grand plans came to fruition, though, the Sounders needed to finally win it all.
For all of the club’s early, consistent success, Seattle had yet to actually win the league. There was a sense that its grand project was stagnating. Buzz around the city had flatlined, its sports fans tiring of the team that reached the postseason annually only to fall short every year.
To reach Hanauer’s lofty goals — and drag MLS into heights even Garber might marvel at — the Sounders needed the jolt of a championship.
To get there would require the kind of tumult a club previously built on stability had never known, a power struggle over the present and future of the franchise. To get there would take firing the only coach Seattle’s modern era had ever known — and a title run so unlikely it could have hardly been scripted.
Sigi Schmid sat in silence in his cluttered office, staring blankly out the window when not looking down at hands creased with age.
The walls of the room were covered with photos of sweaty, jubilant soccer players, most of them lifting one silver trophy or another. To look up would mean coming to grips with all he’d accomplished here and, by extension, what he had just lost. To look up would be an admission that it was over.
The old coach had been fired once before, by his hometown L.A. Galaxy. This felt more personal, somehow. The hollow ache in his chest was more repressive than he remembered.
Seattle was supposed to be his legacy, the exclamation point on a long and storied career. In seven previous campaigns, starting with the Major League Soccer expansion season of 2009, Schmid’s Sounders never once missed the playoffs. They won four U.S. Open Cups, not the league championships they craved but trophies nevertheless.
Seattle’s off-field gains started with the consistent success the winningest coach in MLS history built from scratch. Yet the ultimate triumph proved elusive. To fans weaned on steady victories, the shortcomings grew more unacceptable with each passing year.
Festering frustration came to a head in the summer of 2016, midway through a season during which everything that could have gone wrong had.
After a decision that felt simultaneously abrupt and a long time coming, Schmid found himself on the wrong end of an early-morning phone call informing him of his termination. Sitting in what was now his former office, he peered out the window as the team that was no longer his walked out to practice without him.
Schmid pulled his phone out of his pocket, checked its blank face for what he hoped was an update on his ride and sighed. A gentle knock disturbed his brooding. Nicolas Lodeiro walked in with his hand outstretched before pulling Schmid in close for a hug.
“I’ll do everything I can to help make the playoffs, take on any role,” Lodeiro promised, prescient if a few days late to save the coach’s job. “I’ve come here to win titles.”
His boldness drew a resigned smile from Schmid: “You’ve come to the right place.”
Schmid had personally helped recruit Seattle’s new star. He’d coached the player’s previous coach in Columbus back in the day, and in this business, personal touches like that could make all the difference. Lodeiro, he was sure, would turn the season around. He was the missing piece. The timing of Lodeiro’s addition as an impact midseason signing was an unfortunate coincidence. That Schmid was somehow still in the building upon his arrival was considerably more awkward.
Out in the hallway, visibly uncomfortable with this exchange of pleasantries, stood general manager Garth Lagerwey. This was supposed to be a cleaner break. Lagerwey hadn’t spared a thought to how it would look if the coach’s ride was running late.
For a franchise often regarded as MLS’s model of stability, the overlap was illustrative. Seattle’s past and future eras collided often that summer, but rarely as clumsily as they did that morning. Lagerwey finally had the control he had long desired, but the transition was never going to be as straightforward as he’d hoped.
For once in his life, Lagerwey’s timing was off. As such, the collision course between him and Schmid was inevitable from the outset.
When Lagerwey was hired as GM, in the winter of 2015 and away from Salt Lake, the Sounders were coming off the most successful year in their history. A few bounces the other way, and Seattle could’ve become the first team in league history to sweep all three major trophies in a single season. Coming in as an interloper from the outside, Lagerwey did not find an especially eager audience at staff meetings. And why would he?
Schmid was open to collaboration, more so than most of his detractors knew. Longevity like his demanded adaptability. Building trust and gaining his ear, though, took time. The coach still set the tone during meetings, and his voice carried the weight of the last word.
So far, the system had worked. Seattle’s brain trust experienced only sustained success from year one. Even if they hadn’t yet summited the loftiest peak, in the winter and spring of 2015 the breakthrough felt inevitable.
“It was stupid,” Lagerwey said, “to take the job when I did.”
Of all the adjectives used to describe the general manager, not even his biggest critics often reach for stupid. Even they would allow that despite his faults, Lagerwey possessed one of the sharpest minds in North American soccer. One does not jump directly from the Miami Fusion’s bench into Georgetown law school without a seriously keen intellect. From Georgetown came a spell as an attorney at Latham & Watkins, the world’s highest-billing law firm. The work was as punishing — up to 100 hours a week — as it was lucrative. Lagerwey would later regard his time in corporate law as the formative experience of his life.
Still, seven years after his goalkeeping career ended with the indignity of a roster cut, Lagerwey wasn’t entirely content. He wanted back into the world of professional sports. His big break came over Christmas 2006, wrapped in the unlikely present of a request to work through the holidays. The case involved working closely with Dave Checketts, the owner of both the NHL’s St. Louis Blues and MLS’s Real Salt Lake. The latter connection especially piqued Lagerwey’s interest — particularly once RSL hired Jason Kreis, his best friend and former Duke teammate, as its head coach early the next year.
“Life, to some degree, is about luck and timing,” Lagerwey said.
That September, Lagerwey signed on as RSL’s general manager. He could have hardly scripted a better situation within which to hone his new craft. He and Kreis inherited a club just a few years into its existence and perennially among the dregs of the league. Expectations were low, allowing them to experiment freely and churn through players with abandon. By the time both men left Salt Lake, the small-market club had won the MLS Cup, played in another title game and reached the final of the CONCACAF Champions League.
So for all Lagerwey was willing to sit back and observe early on in his Sounders tenure, eventually his confidence in his ideas and willingness to share them won out over decorum.
A heavyset man with a booming voice, Lagerwey filled every room he entered. He had a knack for remembering personal details from even the briefest encounters with strangers; he also had a tendency to dominate conversation. He’s the type of sports executive you would like to grab a beer with: a native of the Chicago suburbs, Lagerwey once proudly traded his typical business casual for a Cubs jersey on the sidelines of a training session that overlapped with the World Series.
The contrast with his predecessor was jarring to those accustomed to the front office’s status quo. Hanauer was the general manager from the club’s inception until late 2014, when the majority owner stepped aside to concentrate on the business side of the organization. Soft-spoken and bookish in his wire-rimmed glasses, Hanauer could hardly be more different in personality from the boisterous Lagerwey.
“Adrian is a really good listener,” Schmid said, the subtext nodding toward Lagerwey obvious. “He’ll listen. He’ll take it in and contemplate it. I think Adrian and I knew what lane to stay in. That didn’t mean you didn’t comment on the other guy’s greater area of expertise, and you offered your opinion. But at the end, you knew that that was his decision-making lane.”
With Lagerwey in the fold, responsibilities were less delineated. The 2015 season fell apart in the span of a few hours midway through June, and tension ratcheted up behind the scenes. Star forward Obafemi Martins left a fateful Open Cup match against rival Portland on a stretcher with a groin injury that cost him two months. Later in that same game, Clint Dempsey ripped up the referee’s notebook in protest and picked up a suspension. Without its two best players, Seattle cratered, losing eight of 10 matches. Every defeat increased the strain.
There wasn’t an obvious flashpoint in the struggle for power between Schmid and Lagerwey, narratively convenient as that would have been. It played out more as a cold war, distrust creeping between two successful men tasked with leading the franchise.
In his corner, Lagerwey retreated to the places he often sought when confronted with a complex problem.
When he first went back to school, Lagerwey would doze off between the wood-paneled bookshelves of Georgetown’s law library after just a few hours of studying. As a professional athlete, his body had grown accustomed to stimuli in short, intense bursts. He was forced to retrain his brain. Later, at Latham & Watkins, he pushed himself to levels he never would have imagined.
“I learned certain things,” Lagerwey said. “After 45 straight hours, my cognitive abilities would decline. You stop being able to do simple things easily. You never thought you would discover that point. Maybe at a bar.”
He marveled at the style of management that would drive subordinates to their respective breaking points. Sure, the fat checks paid out every other week served as plenty of motivation, but Lagerwey also grew to deeply respect the executives in their corner offices for their ability to inspire.
“It wasn’t fun,” Lagerwey said. “Like, it might be intellectually interesting to explore. I can no longer read this note in front of me. My brain is shutting down. But from that, I learned so much and actually had so many good experiences.”
As such, Lagerwey didn’t always have a lot of patience for players and colleagues either unwilling or unable to push themselves toward those outer limits. The former attorney spoke often about applying the lessons he learned in corporate law to professional sports. That could involve an increased reliance on analytics produced by Seattle’s well-regarded sports science staff. It manifested itself in buzzwords like empowerment and accountability.
There was a detached lack of sentimentality to it as well. Lagerwey purposefully kept himself at a slight remove from his players to avoid emotion clouding his judgment. Having been blooded in such a cutthroat environment, he did not shy away from making the tough calls, even when — or perhaps especially when — they involved veterans beloved both by teammates and fans.
“That’s the job. You have to be able to do that,” Lagerwey said. “Some of those decisions are even going to be unpopular internally.”
Internally might have referred to the delicate chemistry of the locker room. It could also have meant the cramped coaches’ meeting space a few doors down.
The Sounders dragged themselves into the playoffs once more in 2015, but they didn’t stay long. A younger, ascendant FC Dallas team ran rings around them for the better part of their two-game Western Conference semifinal. Seattle was eliminated on penalty kicks. Familiar grumbling increased in volume. And within the club hierarchy, divisions deepened.
As rewarding as professional sport could be, financially and otherwise, it was also a brutal workplace. Even when the ax was about to drop, the athlete didn’t always sense it swinging down.
Chad Barrett drove to the team’s practice facility in late 2015 optimistic that his Sounders contract would be renewed for another year. The journeyman forward had been reasonably productive in spot duty during the season that’d just ended. Considering his age and experience, the $10,000 raise he was due on his $100,000 salary was paltry by MLS standards.
The leaves were falling ahead of the coming winter when he pulled into a sparsely populated lot. The cars he parked next to unnerved him. End-of-season meetings were typically called in waves. Players on their way out were often brought in earliest. So when Barrett spotted several automobiles that belonged to expensive veterans he knew were in danger of being cut, he felt a cold chill.
Barrett had known Schmid since he was a teenager. Schmid coached the U.S. under-20 team at the 2005 World Youth Championship, during which Barrett scored the goal that felled an Argentina team led by an up-and-coming prospect named Lionel Messi.
When Barrett considered signing with the Sounders prior to the 2014 season, Schmid didn’t sugarcoat it: With Dempsey and Martins ahead of him on the depth chart, playing time was likely to be sparse. If he was willing to take and embrace a complementary role, though, he was more than welcome.
“He’s the most honest coach I ever played for,” Barrett said of Schmid. “I felt like I could trust everything that came out of his mouth.”
What came out of Schmid’s mouth that morning in his office was unexpected and unpleasant: “I don’t want to waste your time. We’ve got to let you go.”
Barrett slumped down the hall for an even briefer meeting with Lagerwey. The player could stay if he agreed to a significant pay cut, which he quickly declined. Sitting across the desk from the man he was convinced made the decision to let him go, Barrett seethed in his leather chair. He also privately wondered how differently it might have gone if Hanauer were still in charge.
“With Adrian, it didn’t seem like he was scheming,” Barrett said. “With Garth, you never really knew what he was up to. You can’t really form any kind of relationship. I didn’t have a relationship with Garth.”
The unemotional approach Lagerwey deemed necessary grated at Schmid, driving a further wedge into their working relationship.
To some degree, head coaches and general managers are inherently, inescapably at odds. At the risk of oversimplification, coaches live in the short term, surviving from week to week. General managers must take a longer view. It’s subjective versus objective, hands on versus at arm’s length.
“I’m not in the locker room most days, and nor should I be, in my opinion,” Lagerwey said. “My job is to be thinking strategically about how we do things for the next five to seven years. The coach and the general manager have fundamentally different jobs.”
When it came to building a team, those fundamental differences clashed. Coaches tended to trust players more as they aged. In a high-stress job in which either success or failure is written in bold on the scoreboard every week, there was a tendency to lean on veterans you knew you could trust. At the other end of the spectrum, general managers valued players less as they got older. Removed from the guts and gore of the week-to-week grind, when viewed on a spreadsheet, Lagerwey would always rather his teams skew younger.
“Older players, by definition, their production is going to decline at some point,” Lagerwey said. “And you tend to be paying them more. Players are assets when you talk about trades and building your team. You have to use them efficiently.”
Sitting in the coaches’ box at CenturyLink Field looking down over his charges in early 2017, Lagerwey asked what was at first a puzzling question: are you a Game of Thrones fan?
Lamar Neagle, a popular winger who with Barrett was part of that first wave of Sounders veterans to be culled during Lagerwey’s tenure, was a hometown kid from nearby Federal Way. The winger was active in the community and often the friendly face the club sent out to photo ops with diehard fans. His wife, Natalie, was also from the area, and she survived a public health scare during the 2014 playoffs that further endeared the couple to fans. They put a positive spin on his trade to D.C. United, at least at first — at least until she found out she was pregnant shortly after they moved into their new apartment across the country from their families.
Looking back now and with the same unshakable sunniness with which he approaches just about everything, Lagerwey offered only a bemused shrug. Business was business, Neagle was getting older, and he needed the cap space.
Are you a Game of Thrones fan? You know the kill list of enemies Arya Stark read before she went to bed?
“I bet you anything I’m on the list of names Lamar Neagle reads from every night,” Lagerwey said while keeping his eyes on the match playing out below. “You can’t go through this job worrying about being liked, because that’s not going to happen.”
The kicker: a few months after that conversation in the coaches’ box, Lagerwey traded with D.C. to bring Neagle back to Seattle — at the far lesser price of a fourth-round draft pick than the valuable allocation money D.C. used to acquire him.
Business was business.
Schmid’s final off-season in Seattle was troubled from the start. It wasn’t even certain that he would return for 2016 after that discouraging Dallas defeat until Lagerwey let the news slip during a forum with Sounders season-ticket holders.
“Let me put something to bed: Sigi is our coach. Sigi will be our coach. Sigi is my coach,” Lagerwey told the crowd that November, a public expression of solidarity that would crumble over the next nine months. The general manager then called out to the coach, who was sitting discreetly in the back of the darkened Paramount Theatre: “Sigi, you cool with being partners another year?”
Schmid nodded in assent, but judging from his sheepish, puzzled initial reaction, no one had bothered to give him a heads-up about the announcement beforehand. Nor had anyone notified his players, either, many of whom were also in the audience and none of whom had been asked their opinion on whether Schmid should be retained.
“No one had any idea,” longtime Sounders captain Brad Evans recalled of the bizarre exchange. “I think all the guys behind the scenes were thinking, ‘What just happened? ’”
Barely a fortnight before the new campaign, another ominous sign came. Martins had been offered a deal with a club in the Chinese Super League that stood to nearly double his annual salary, and he intended to take it. His departure left a hole that nobody else on the roster could fill — and widened the fissure between Schmid and Lagerwey.
It was another clash of short-term pressure versus long-term planning. In MLS, new players could be added only during two stretches of the calendar, during a chunk of spring and again in late summer. After his team opened the season with three consecutive losses, and perhaps sensing a dark hand creeping over his shoulder, Schmid and the coaching staff pushed for an influential acquisition sooner rather than later.
Yet one could hardly blame Lagerwey for dragging his feet. MLS roster rules allowed for three players whose contracts counted only as a minor hit against the salary cap. Those slots, reserved for the biggest stars, could make or break you. Martins’s abrupt departure had left little time to scout and negotiate with potential replacements. In addition, with most of the South American and European leagues building to a climax in the spring, the majority of the best players are typically available only in the summer.
In the meantime, losses piled up. This was an inopportune moment for what was shaping up to be the worst year since the team joined MLS. In the background, Hanauer and the higher-ups were carefully crafting their ambitious plans for the future. It was crucial to maintain momentum, not forestall it.
“Everybody could sense that there was tension,” Evans said. “I think the guys who were playing for Sigi resented the new GM, because guys were used to getting what they wanted whenever they wanted it. Now there was somebody telling them ‘no.’ There was pushback, and things kind of went into a tailspin from there. The team wasn’t doing well, whether that’s because subconsciously you could sense there was unrest in the club or because we just weren’t scoring goals.
“The tension just builds and builds. I have a really close relationship with Sigi. I can tell when there’s something going on. I pick up on cues in rooms that other guys, the younger guys, would never notice — whether that’s the way one guy is sitting, or that they’re not looking at each other during meetings. I pick up on all of those cues. It was like that for like a year.”
Everything came to a head in late July in Kansas City, where the Sounders landed in the midst of a Midwestern heat wave. On-field temperatures topped out near 106 degrees Fahrenheit, coupled with humidity that thickened the air into soup. Especially compared with mild Seattle, conditions were oppressive. Spirits weren’t helped by the midweek Open Cup elimination to Los Angeles a few days earlier, when the Sounders twice gave away leads via unforced individual errors.
Schmid visualized a locker room split in thirds: players who were squarely in his corner, those who weren’t and guys floating somewhere in between. Even at the breaking point, he didn’t sense an internal shift, and most of his players backed him on that. Still, morale was low. Seattle sat seven points out of the playoffs and was sinking fast.
Several players have described the playing conditions that afternoon in Kansas City as being as adverse as any they’d ever played in, including Evans, who grew up playing beneath a desert sun in Phoenix. The relentless heat was so exhausting that midway through the second half, defender Chad Marshall genuinely thought he was going to lose control of his bowels on national television.
“I was close,” Marshall said. “The second water break in the second half kind of saved me. You’re so tired that you just start to lose control.”
Seattle lost 3–0, finishing one late consolation strike from becoming the first MLS team to ever go a full game without registering a single shot. The ESPN audience — and those sitting in air-conditioned owners’ boxes — didn’t have a sense for the searing heat. Few were aware of the extenuating circumstances.
To them, the Sounders looked like a team that quit on its coach.
The Tuesday morning after the Kansas City loss, Schmid woke up with an uneasy feeling. “I’m getting fired today,” he told his wife, Valerie, and sure enough, the call informing him of his termination arrived shortly afterward. Schmid headed to the practice facility to address his team for the last time, then sat down in his office to wait for a ride back downtown.
Lodeiro, the missing piece, stuck his head in. They spoke through a translator; the Uruguayan again elicited a wry smile when he joked that the old coach really should learn Spanish. Even all things considered, Schmid got a kick out of how their chance meeting made Lagerwey squirm. Already, the general manager’s best-laid plans had encountered an awkward hitch.
Standing in front of a semicircle of news cameras half an hour later, Hanauer spoke first. The firing of Schmid, and the naming of Brian Schmetzer as his interim replacement, the majority owner said multiple times, was his decision and his decision alone. Lagerwey stepped in next. Somberness did not come naturally to him, and he barely concealed his excitement at taking control.
“I did my best to be deferential, if anything, over these past 18 months,” Lagerwey said. “This team doesn’t play like any team I’ve ever built before. I’m looking forward to a new beginning.”
The Schmid era held an exalted place in the soccer history of a city not lacking in it. Dating all the way back to the original NASL, the coach stood out as a figurehead as important as any this proud club had ever possessed.
That morning at the team facility, though, as past and future bumped headlong into one another, it was evident that the page had irrevocably turned.
What is it about Seattle that makes it such a good soccer town?
That question had been posed and parsed ad nauseam since the Sounders took Major League Soccer by storm starting in 2009. The inquiry was natural, given the immensity of Seattle’s early successes. For a time there, it more than doubled the second-place finisher in the MLS annual attendance rankings.
Reasons for soccer’s popularity in the region, however, were not so easy to explain in just a sentence or two. There was no single magic bullet, as handy as that might have been. Plenty of plaudits were rained upon the collective wisdom of the Sounders’ ownership group, and justifiably so. They hit all the right notes from the outset: identifying the right target audience, tapping into the city’s countercultural vibe, compiling a talented roster from the jump. Importantly, though, the modern-day Sounders hit the scene at a critical juncture in Seattle’s sporting history.
The NBA’s Sonics had been cruelly wrested away to Oklahoma City in 2008, one year prior to the Sounders’ debut. The politics of the relocation provided insight into the region as a whole. Seattle had actually come close to losing both MLB’s Mariners and the NFL’s Seahawks during the early part of the previous decade, keeping them only by agreeing to publicly fund two shiny new stadiums side by side just south of downtown.
(A quick little aside: CenturyLink Field might never have been built if not for the efforts of the local soccer community. Despite not having obtained any assurances from MLS, the building was pitched as a two-sport venue for the Seahawks and a to-be-determined soccer tenant in order to broaden popular support. The ordinance passed but only narrowly, and many credited the soccer folks with getting it over the line.)
By the late 2000s, however, when the Sonics wanted in on the action, there was little appetite for another public subsidy to fund yet another sports palace. Besides, KeyArena itself had been renovated in the mid-’90s. What did it need another drastic facelift for? And the Sonics wouldn’t actually leave, would they? They did, taking a pair of transcendent talents in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with them.
For all of Seattle’s rapid, tech-industry-fueled growth since the turn of the millennium, marooned out in the northwest corner of the country, it retained self-consciousness about its place in mainstream America. The loss of a big-league franchise was a serious blow to the city’s collective psyche.
Nor did the other local teams offer much of a respite. That September, the Mariners earned the ignominious designation of becoming the first team in baseball history to spend more than $100 million on its payroll and lose at least a hundred games. The proud University of Washington football team finished winless, 0-12. Even the Seahawks won just four games, the future glories of the Pete Carroll era still a few years away.
Seattle was crying out for a winner, any winner. It was paramount, then, that the Sounders hit the ground running. If they were going to take advantage of the vacuum created by the Sonics’ departure, they needed to be good, and they needed to be good right away.
Goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who had grown up just down the road in Olympia but made his name in Europe’s biggest leagues, had agreed to come home as one of the club’s first marquee signings for just such an opportunity. Keller played in the English Premier League, in the German Bundesliga and in multiple World Cups with the U.S. national team, but rarely had he ever experienced the nerves he felt jumping around in his belly prior to Seattle’s inaugural match against the New York Red Bulls on March 19, 2009. Keller felt the anticipation building around the city in the days leading up to the match but knew how fleeting it could be.
“I felt a huge amount of pressure not to have those fans go home disappointed,” Keller told me. “This is what we wanted. We want that relevancy. The last thing we wanted them to do was say, ‘Meh,’ to have that blasé feeling of, ‘This is what the hype was all about? The team goes and gets their butts kicked, and who really cares?’”
With a festive crowd of 32,608 on hand, Sounders midfielder Fredy Montero scored the first goal of the club’s modern era just 12 minutes in. The crafty Colombian assisted on Evans’s tally that made it 2–0 on the other side of halftime and set the final score at 3–0 with another goal 15 minutes from the final whistle. Seattle won its first three MLS matches in quick succession, setting the tone for a season that, against precedent and league-wide expectation, ended in a playoff berth.
“Momentum was built because we were relevant from day one,” Keller said. “There was an excitement based on it not only because of the expansion, but because of the atmosphere we created. It was such a perfect storm between so many influences, and we felt like we weren’t going to let down our part of it on the field. If we hadn’t been any good, definitely I don’t think we would have had the momentum we built.”
As Keller alluded, the expansion was a success on multiple fronts. Partnering with the Seahawks for business operations proved vital. While most of the franchises around MLS at the time could have been charitably described as amateurish, the NFL team’s infrastructure gave the Sounders a professional sheen.
When asking the question posed in the first line of the chapter, many skeptics — especially those from a few hours down the road in Portland — wondered why the minor-league iterations of the Sounders had drawn so poorly. Even Brian Schmetzer’s 2005 and 2007 USL champions, led by a proud local son and stocked with talent drawn mostly from the region, were lucky to attract a few thousand fans to home matches, ...