A winning culture

When Nate Jaqua scored in the 89th minute to even the score at 1-1 and send the US Open Cup Semifinal to overtime, it was all-too-familiar territory for many Sounders.

Tuesday night’s Open Cup semifinal was a high-drama affair.  But when Nate Jaqua scored in the 89th minute to even the score at 1-1 and send the game to extra time, it was all-too-familiar territory for Sounders FC owner/GM Adrian Hanauer and several of the players, coaches and fans that had followed the USL club in Seattle in previous seasons.

The owner of the USL Sounders from 2002-2008, Hanauer had seen his club in the scenario the Sounders FC faced Tuesday night against the Houston Dynamo before.

With the score even after regulation, their semifinal meeting would head to extra time.  Just as it did in 2007 when the Sounders faced MLS club FC Dallas at Qwest Field.  And like they did against the Charleston Battery in 2008 in South Carolina.

To Hanauer though, the 2-1 win on Tuesday was less about redemption than it was about trying to reach the ultimate goal – creating a winning culture around the Seattle Sounders FC.

 “I’m so competitive.  Sigi’s so competitive.  There was no chance of going into this without wanting to win it,” Hanauer said.  “You have to balance some things, but ultimately you want to win every game and competition you enter.  That has led us to bid aggressively to host games.  It’s led us to put a very competitive side out in the Open Cup games.”

That side rallied to a 2-1 win over the Portland Timbers, their USL rivals, in the third round and a 1-0 win over the Kansas City Wizards in the fourth round.  But that only begins to tell the story, as Seattle had to top Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids in Open Cup play-in games. 

Since Hanauer took ownership of the USL team in 2002 he has perpetuated success from year-to-year and that has carried over in droves to the MLS level.  Now the goals have become even greater and reaching the Open Cup final is one step in that process.

“It’s huge, but I also temper that because we want to build a winning tradition in Seattle for years to come,” Hanauer said.  “This is a good first step, but just making it to an Open Cup Final isn’t going to accomplish what we’re looking for.  It’s the culture of winning that we are trying to build here.  It’s absolutely a great first step and something we are very proud of.  But we also understand that there is a lot more on the line. “

That Open Cup success, coupled with Seattle’s 7-3-7 record and second place standing in the MLS, along with a great marketing strategy and a fanbase hungry for big league soccer, has created a palpable reaction from the city.  But praise from within the community, within the league and from visiting teams like Chelsea and Everton are not enough to satisfy Hanauer.

“When you get a lot of early success, sometimes that can lead to laziness and complacency.  We need to make sure we build in the future and make sure that no one in the organization gets lazy,” Hanauer said.  “If you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go, so we need to continue to build bigger and bigger goals and aspirations for ourselves and everybody involved in the organization.”

With still 13 regular season games, the Open Cup final and a friendly with FC Barcelona on the schedule, Hanauer is already able to look ahead to the 2010 season knowing that he will have a lot to build on to keep himself and the Sounders supporters happy.

But how can he improve on a fan experience in the inaugural season that will include friendlies with two of the top teams in the world in Chelsea and Barcelona and hosting the MLS Cup Final?  That is a question Hanauer ponders while envisioning a successful Sounders FC franchise.

“There are two sides – the business side and the technical side.  On the business side, we are thinking about how we have the most season ticket holders and the most passion possible next year and the year after.  How we get even more people wearing green next year and beyond.  How we provide more value with great international competitions next year and beyond.  How we get more corporate partners involved and how we deliver more value to those corporate partners.  How we do more in the community to support the causes that are important to us,” Hanauer said.  “Then on the technical side, how we build something that’s sustainable and not a flash in the pan and a lot of that is about culture and philosophy.  The culture and habit of winning is something we are always very conscious of.”

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