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Seattle: America's soccer city

By Thomas Cooper, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Seattle was finally awarded a Major League Soccer franchise in 2007
  • The Sounders debuted in the MLS in 2009, winning the U.S. Open Cup
  • The Seattle franchise also reached the Western Conference semifinals
  • The Sounders play at Qwest Field, and had an average attendance of 30,897

(CNN) -- Though soccer is the most played sport around the world, with governing body FIFA recognizing football federations in more than 200 nations, the beloved "beautiful game" has always struggled to be a dominant force in the United States.

Attempts have been made to boost its support, first with the North American Soccer League (NASL) which kicked off in 1968, and more recently with Major League Soccer (MLS).

The approach to break the grip of traditional sports in the U.S. has been different with both franchises.

The NASL, which collapsed in 1984, favored big names and an adaptation of the rules, while the MLS has tried to supplement home-grown talent with foreign stars such as David Beckham, capable of taking the game's reach to more fans.

Video: Chatting with David Beckham
RELATED TOPICS
  • Soccer
  • MLS Soccer
  • Seattle Sounders
  • Seattle
  • Sigi Schmid

However, the NFL, NBA and MLB remain the big attention-grabbers with the U.S. public as American football, basketball and baseball dominate.

Though breaking this grip has proved a difficult task in most MLS expansions across America, Seattle is one of the few towns where the tide for the affection of the city's sports fans seems to be turning.

Seattle first put itself forward as an MLS franchise at the league's inception in 1994 and, after several attempts, in 2007 the city was awarded a team thanks to the combined efforts of high-profile backers.

Film producer Joe Roth, comedian Drew Carey and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, among others, combined to convince the MLS to accept the city's bid and to create the Seattle Sounders Football Club.

What took the MLS so long to get here? I've always thought that this was a goldmine
--Seattle journalist Steve Kelley

The bid was helped by Allen's ownership of the 60,000 capacity Qwest Field, home ground to the NFL's Seahawks -- an arena built with intention of hosting an MLS team.

Seattle Times sports columnist Steve Kelley was amazed that it took so long to found a team in a community that has a large soccer fanbase.

"Seattle was a huge soccer market. It had a lot of success when the NASL was playing here in the 1970s and '80s. My question is: 'What took the MLS so long to get here?' I've always thought that this was a goldmine."

"It's the most played sport [here]," adds Greg Mockos, co-president of the Emerald City Supporters (ECS) -- the Sounders' largest fan organization. "You can go around downtown Seattle at every park and every pitch, and there are hundreds of teams playing."

The 2009 season was the inaugural campaign for the Sounders, and while the front office will be delighted with its on-pitch performance -- the side reached the Western Conference semifinals and won the U.S. Open Cup -- it has been the enthusiastic response of the city's soccer fans that could be providing most pleasure.

The main thing for us is we can't be complacent on the field or off it
--Sounders' head coach Sigi Schmid

Qwest Field set a league record with an average attendance of 30,897. This rivals that of baseball's Seattle Mariners, who in 2008 averaged 28,761 at the 47,116-capacity SAFECO Field and since 2004 have been watched by just over 30,000.

While factors such as number of games must be considered, the Sounders' final playoff attendance of 35,807 indicates growing interest.

Yet it has been the nature of the city's response that suggests this support is more than just a fad.

"The atmosphere has been tremendous," explains Sounders coach Sigi Schmid. "Every time we walked on the field the atmosphere was great. The fans were behind us and they've got their chants for individual players. In that sense it's very European, very international."

With their banners, flags and shirts, supporters have combined to create an atmosphere rare within professional American sports, and wholly typical of soccer.

"A major problem with the atmosphere at typical American sports is the number of stoppages, there are too many times when tension is lost," explains Robby Branom, part of the ECS.

"In addition there are no sections in any baseball or American football stadium where active fans can group together, making it impossible for any organized support."

The process of attracting people inside and out of Seattle's existing soccer fanbase has come at a time when the city is still reeling from the loss of its NBA franchise (the Sonics) to Oklahoma City (now named Thunder).

Despite its embracement of the Sounders, the timing of the soccer season means it ends in November just as the NBA is getting underway. For some, the quality of the MLS is not enough to make up for the Sonics' disappearance.

"I've loved this year; it's been great to watch quality soccer," Kelley said. "But the NBA has the best players in the world, and they're gone now from Seattle. The MLS has a good league, but these aren't obviously the best players in the world. For some people the gap has been filled, but not for me."

Despite this there is a confidence that MLS in Seattle is advancing well.

"The Sounders have done everything right to placate and involve the soccer fans," Kelley said. "But I think there's still growth among sports fans. As the next couple of years progress, if the team gets better and I think because of management it will, then there's a whole bigger market out there."

Schmid is certainly optimistic over his club's future.

"We have to realize this was year one, so from a business standpoint we've got to continue to work as it its year one all over again and not pretend it's easy now. The main thing for us is we can't be complacent on the field or off it," he said.

The Sounders will be absent from Sunday's MLS Cup final, held at Qwest Field, but Seattle's soccer fans will surely echo Schmid's sentiment.

They will, however, be able to watch as English superstar Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy side takes on underdog Real Salt Lake