Face it, time flies.
Faster and faster the world spins and before you know it, some date that initially seemed far off is suddenly in your rearview mirror.
Which brings us to today’s subject: Major League Soccer’s opening day in April 2009 and the first official game for Seattle’s expansion team.
Sixteen months away. That sure sounds like a lot of time, but take a closer look.
Figuring you to be more attuned to sports and entertainment than, say, politics, let’s turn back the calendar by 16 months and determine just how long ago that now seems.
In July of 2006, Bruce Arena still had a job as U.S. national team coach. Floyd Landis owned an untarnished image and the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. And Italy’s Marco Materazzi was whispering not-so-pleasant words in the ear of France’s Zine´dine Zidane.
Does it feel like ancient history or just yesterday?
For many in the MLS, 16 months sounds like an eternity. In fact, Commissioner Don Garber says Seattle will be the beneficiary of the longest lead time yet for an expansion franchise. By contrast, Real Salt Lake was put together in eight months and San Jose’s preparations will be compressed into nine months before beginning play next season.
“Seattle is getting the optimal amount of time, the lead time we would like all of our teams to get,” said Garber. “It will allow them to secure their business operations, determine their brand and communicate that brand to the market.”
Ready to Go
Unlike other MLS teams, Seattle’s business and marketing arm is already up and running. Vulcan Sports & Entertainment (VSE) is the parent organization of the Seahawks, and was already accepting MLS Seattle membership (season ticket) deposits before Day One was done.
Tod Leiweke, the CEO of VSE, has quickly learned some of the ways of Seattle area residents. “It’s a sophisticated and passionate market, but it’s not a place where people go out and buy tickets because you say it’s the right thing to do.
“You’ve got to earn their support,” said Leiweke, “When you do, they bring the passion.”
Fans wasted precious little time responding to the news of the team. In the first 24 hours following the team¹s announcement more than 3,000 deposits were sold and 2,000 fans submitted suggestions for the team name.
Majority owner Joe Roth has launched many a motion picture over his 35 years in the entertainment business. All movies are composed of a business end and a creative end. In some ways, those two pieces are in place.
“Tod’s organization is the very, very best at what they do,” said Roth. “To have them running the business operation is huge. It takes a tremendous load off me trying to build one.”
Meanwhile, General Manager Owner Adrian Hanauer is assembling the team side of the operation.
Whereas most expansion teams begin filling their rosters with the dispersal draft (Seattle and the second ’09 expansion team will hold theirs in November ’08), Hanauer has already taken measures to build a squad beforehand.
Hanauer’s Seattle Sounders will return to Qwest Field to play a 15th season in the United Soccer Leagues next summer, and he’s received permission from the MLS to promote the best Sounders players to the MLS team for ’09. Among the returnees are all-stars Taylor Graham, Roger Levesque and Sebastien Le Toux, the USL First Division MVP.
Soccer’s played around the world and Seattle management is committed to searching the globe for great players. Everyone’s got Ronaldinho’s address, but sometimes greatness must be discovered. If it requires a trip to Chile, China (Hanauer’s done that) or Timbuktu, the newest MLS team is determined to do whatever’s necessary.
Already Roth and Hanauer have sketched an outline of the type of qualities they want in a player:
• Smart, in terms of both making good decisions on and off the field, and quick thinking while in the game
• Speed will be a “huge component. Moving the ball quickly, closing down defensively.”
• Commitment to the city, the team and the community.
“Our lead time allows us to be patient, disciplined and process-oriented instead of reactionary,” Hanauer said. “We get to build a strategy and execute around that strategy.”
Locals Not to be Overlooked
Roth wants to establish a connection with the Washington State Youth Soccer Association, both to attract families to Qwest Field and to help produce boys and girls who will not only wear a Seattle jersey someday, but also that of the U.S. national team.
“I hope we end up with a couple kids from the area, and a couple kids from the Sounders,” Roth said. “You want to bring in international players but at the same time it’s about growing your own. I think that’s the way you make it work.”
Once the franchise blueprint is completed, among the first orders of business will be hiring a coach and settling on a team name. Fans can offer their team name suggestions, while and Hanauer will develop a list of candidates for the former.
Brian Schmetzer, a Seattle native, an original Sounder and the USL side’s coach for the past five seasons, will be considered, and for good reason. The Sounders have won two league titles and finished runner-up once in the last four years.
Schmetzer’s passion is coaching, yet the ensuing months offer opportunities elsewhere.
Got an idea for a can’t-miss nickname? Stick it in the email.
Got game? Prospective player tryouts will be scheduled for next winter.
Got brass? Pull that tuba out of the closet and polish it. There’s a marching band in the works, and if you’ve got the lungs, you could give Drew Carey an earful.
“As much as we’d like to win a championship in that first year or two, it’s going to take awhile,” reasons Leiweke. “We want to create an experience that people want to be part of, and we will do that.”
The MLS Seattle movement is well underway. Kickoff is 16 months away, but to be ready on Opening Day, you might want to get started. Now.
Previously, the longest lead time for any MLS expansion team was 11 months. Chicago made the most of it, winning both the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup in the Fire’s inaugural year of 1998. Toronto FC used a similar time span to sell-out every game this past season…Rushed, Real Salt Lake has gone 21-40-23 in its first three years…Philadelphia and St. Louis are considered to be the top contenders for the second expansion team in 2009.