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MLS Cup Caps Whirlwind Season for Sounders FC and Washington Youth Soccer
For at least one night, on Nov. 22, the eyes of the entire soccer world were on Seattle — and if the passion shown by Seattle soccer fans is any indication, it certainly won't be for the last time.
On the pitch, it was a game for the ages — David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Kyle Beckerman, Robbie Findley and the other stars of L.A. Galaxy and Real Salt Lake waged a 120-minute battle on the pitch for the 2009 MLS Cup, a battle ultimately decided in RSL's favor on penalties, including a high miss by Donovan that brought a loud gasp from the 46,000 in attendance.
It was off the pitch, though — in the stands, on the North lawn before the game — where MLS Cup's true impact was made.
For as loud as the (largely rave-green-clad) supporters were before the game, they were just as vociferous during MLS' pre-game Fan Fest, including a rock concert by Third Eye Blind and a chance to browse goodies and special offers from selected sponsors and partners of Sounders FC and MLS. As they have been all year, Washington Youth Soccer was in the thick of the action, handing out fun giveaways throughout the pre-game action from their booth right next to the concert, while staffing the field with Ball Kids from Vancouver United's '92 Blue GU17 squad, coached by Troy Maxcy.
The Washington Youth Soccer family also turned out several volunteers for the MLS Clean and Green event the day before, joining MLS Commissioner Don Garber and MLS stars Juan Pablo Angel, Jimmy Conrad, Jeff Cunningham, Dwayne De Rosario and Seattle's own Brad Evans to grab a shovel and add some greenery to Seattle's SoDo neighborhood.
The Clean and Green Event was the 103rd held by the city, and the first to partner with MLS W.O.R.K.S.
"We start out with events like this, but encourage people to do it in their neighborhoods," said J. Paul Blake, director of community relations development for Seattle Public Utilities. "It's been a great program. We wanted to help draw attention to MLS Cup with this event. Especially since Seattle is in the running to be a host city in the World Cup bids."
If the FIFA voters who will select those World Cup sites were watching on Sunday, Seattle must certainly have vaulted to the top end of a short list of potential Cup candidates.
Green-clad Sounders FC supporters marched to the game from Occidental Park as has been typical throughout the season, this time joined by supporters of the Galaxy and RSL, each of whom also staged their own impromptu pregame festivities on the West and North sides of the stadium, respectively. Many of the Sounders fans that turned out said they were excited to have a game of this caliber on home turf.
"It's pretty cool to think that this is the biggest game being played today in the entire world, and we have the chance to see it," said Kyle Davies, 28, a Sounders FC supporter who attended the game with his fiancée, Kelly Casavan. "We've been to 4-5 games this season, and just wanted to be a part of the whole thing, the whole experience. It's been so much fun this year, we're not quite ready to let it go."
As the game wore on, it became obvious to many observers that a good percentage of the 46,000 (mostly rave-green-clad) fans in attendance were behind Real Salt Lake, volume of the supporters' songs and cheers peaking with each of RSL's near-misses in the second half.
And why not, given the many similarities between the teams? Like RSL, who limped into the playoffs as the eighth overall seed, placing fifth in the West, Sounders came into the year without the weight of expectation. It was teams like Galaxy, meanwhile — the star-studded favorites of just about any MLS season — that Sounders FC set its sights on all year, proving time and again that the Rave Green are for real.
When the Sounders took the field in March, few professional soccer fans outside of Seattle had ever heard of any Sounders FC players not named Ljungberg or Keller. Within a week, the name Freddy Montero was on the lips of every soccer pundit in America (and some in Europe, too) — within a matter of months, so were the names Brad Evans, Nate Jaqua, Steve Zakuani, Tyrone Marshall, Sanna Nyassi, James Riley … and of course, the Emerald City's own Cardiac Kid, Roger Levesque.
After opening the season with three-straight wins — allowing no goals in the process — Sounders FC shot to the top of the Western Conference standings and stayed within striking of distance of first throughout the summer. Needing three wins to guarantee a playoff spot with three games to play — including two on the road — Sounders FC ended its year just as it began it, winning 1-0, 3-2 and 2-1 to become just the second MLS expansion team to reach the playoffs in its inaugural season.
A hard-fought playoff loss to perennial contender Houston Dynamo followed — despite Sounders FC's defense holding the Dynamo scoreless for the first 185 minutes of the two-legged match — but the Rave Green returned home champions in the eyes of their fans, hundreds of whom awaited the team's plane at the airport upon its return from Houston.
In between March and November, Sounders FC — and most notably, its supporters — flipped the American soccer world on its head. Sounders FC fans crushed all MLS attendance records by packing an average of 30, 897 fans into Qwest Field for each home game — more than 10,000 per game beyond the second best-supported team, L.A. Galaxy (20,416 per game). Perhaps most tellingly, Rave Green supporters put Seattle Sounders FC on the list of the 50 best-supported clubs in the world, as compiled by World Soccer magazine — Sounders FC's average attendance ranked 50th of any club worldwide, the first MLS team ever to appear on the prestigious ranking (Manchester United tops the ranking at 75,304).
Riding those record levels of support, Sounders FC also became the first MLS expansion team to win the U.S. Open Cup, defeating the Portland Timbers, Kansas City Wizards and Houston Dynamo en route to a dramatic, 2-1 win over D.C. United on United's home turf, sending Sounders fans into a frenzy and clinching the club's berth in next year's CONCACAF Champions' League.
"It's been so much fun," said 9-year-old Madison Niemi of the 2009 season, outside Qwest Field before the MLS Cup. "Seattle is awesome for soccer whether you're a kid or a professional player."
Given all that has happened from that early win streak in March, through sold-out friendlies with Chelsea and Barcelona in the summer, through the U.S. Open Cup title in September, a narrow playoff defeat and the rabid support shown by supporters at the MLS Cup and throughout the year, one thing is for certain — when Sounders FC takes to the pitch next spring, they will do so with the eyes of not only the thousands in Qwest Field upon them, but of the entire world, watching to see the future of soccer in America (truly, the game's next great frontier) take shape before their eyes.
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