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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Tuesday, July 7, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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For soccer fans, a cheery place to be

SEATTLE – Boooooooooooooooo.

From each of Qwest Field’s 32,404 occupied lower-bowl seats the rumble built, ricocheting off the roof and the tarps stretched taut across the upper decks and washing over Craig Waibel any time he put a foot to the ball.

Boooooooooooooooooo.

“Maybe if more than 29,000 had been booing,” he said dryly, “I might have been able to hear them.”

The thing is, he would have booed, too. He would have gathered with the rest of them in Occidental Park and marched to the stadium, singing “The bluest skies you’ll ever see are in Seattle,” holding his Sounders FC scarf aloft and recruiting reinforcements from the bistros en route. He would have shelled out a hundred bucks for the lime green uniform top with Fredy Montero’s No. 17. He would have picked sparkly confetti out of his hair from the shower that starts every game.

He would have loved the Sounders and reviled the Houston Dynamo and reveled in the mere idea of Major League Soccer in Seattle and the stadium sold out on a glorious July Saturday. At least, he would have 10 years ago when he was a kid from Spokane just out of the University of Washington and playing for the old A-League Sounders.

As it was, he almost – almost – didn’t mind that these Sounders beat his Dynamo 2-1 on a bicycle kick (!) and that he was Villain for a Day.

“We were begging for an MLS franchise when I was here,” he said. “I would have been one of the 32,000 today. It’s a proud day for me to come back and see the team I started my professional career with excel at this level and compete so well in the first year.

“I just wish they didn’t compete as well as they did today.”

Yes, they compete. The expansion Sounders are within a victory of the Western Division-leading Dynamo, a story that’s almost a footnote.

Far more amazing is the he-man’s embrace in which Seattle has gripped its new sporting toy, and the spells town and team have cast on each other.

The raw math: The Sounders will set an MLS attendance record in their first year. Already they are averaging more than the 28,916 the Los Angeles Galaxy drew 13 years ago, and recently the Qwest configuration was expanded to accommodate more than 32,000 – though it wasn’t nearly enough.

“My son tried to get season tickets when they opened up the extra 3,000 seats, but they sold out too quick,” said Bob Cole, an attorney from Stanwood and himself a season-ticket holder.

The Sounders were judicious in their approach, blocking off the upper reaches of Qwest to ensure a cozier atmosphere and increase demand. But it can’t all be marketing. The Sounders are drawing three times what teams in Dallas and Kansas City pull.

Gary Wright, the former Seahawks executive who as Sounders vice president more or less midwifed this phenomenon, finds it extraordinary – and yet isn’t surprised.

“I watched and knew the love affair the city had with the old Sounders in the North American Soccer League,” he said. “I’d go to the soccer bars and see how many people were truly passionate fans.

“It’s easy to say now, but I said it before.”

Get to Occidental Park too early and you might think it’s all been overblown. On Saturday, a Sounders functionary with a microphone tried to stir up a handful of fans with the help of Miss Washington USA and some ballcaps for prizes. The energy was minimal. Then the 53-piece Sound Wave band – an MLS first – came blasting around the corner, eventually breaking into a song that was rumored to be “Let’s Get It Started.”

More fans gathered – a guy in a lime green pro rassler’s mask, another decked out with a jersey, hat, three scarves and two horns, Bob Cole whacking a tom-tom with a mallet.

And somehow between the park and the stadium, 200 fans became a thousand.

Once inside, they cheered at Montero’s tying goal – which the Dynamo insisted wasn’t a goal at all. They swooned when defender Patrick Ianni bicycled in the winner. And they rained boos when Waibel roughly took down Montero and got into a sideline dustup with midfielder Freddie Ljungberg.

And yet, the more boos, the merrier.

“This is what soccer is in the United States, or will be,” Waibel said. “This is not a one-off. It’s a great example of what’s to come. Every organization from here on out has a tough standard to reach. I’m really happy for the people here.”

Maybe they can save him a seat.

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