Five years ago there were plenty of professional players around the world from the Seattle area. Ever since things kicked off at CenturyLink Field on March 19, 2009, and the Sounders FC topped the New York Red Bulls 3-0 in their inaugural match in front of 32,523 fans in attendance and a national television audience, the perception of those players changed.
While there has always been a steady stream of pros coming out of Seattle and the northwest region, that match and the 72 more rampant sellout crowds that followed meant that they no longer were just coming from a small pocket of successful players in Seattle. They were now all products of the soccer-crazy environment in the country’s most fervent fanbase.
“There was always a good soccer culture in Seattle. There have been quite a few players that have come out of there and the youth teams have always been good,” said Kent native, Seattle University product and former USL Sounder Cam Weaver. “They’ve certainly raised it to another level, that’s for sure.”
Weaver is among three players from the Seattle playing with the Houston Dynamo, along with All-Star goalkeeper Tally Hall and rookie second round draft pick Anthony Arena. They are part of the new wave of talent from Western Washington that has garnered steam at the MLS level, taking over from the previous class of players that included Chris Henderson, Brandon Prideaux and Wade Webber, among others.
One among that current group is FC Dallas defender George John, who is as Seattle as they come. He grew up in Shorline, attended Shorewood High School and the University of Washington, where he was a regular at Husky soccer and football games long before he was recruited by then-coach Dean Wurzberger. After a standout career with the Huskies, he was drafted 14th overall in the first round of the 2009 MLS SuperDraft.
Now in his fifth season in Major League Soccer, he has become a face of the Dallas organization. And while he is envious of the following in his hometown, he still walks around Seattle with relative anonymity compared with players in the Rave Green.
“Kids there look up to the Sounders now the way I looked up to the Sonics when I was a kid,” he said. “They know every player. They’re superstars in the city.”
Include Kelyn Rowe among the locals that have seen a spike in his Seattle pride too. The Federal Way native and New England Revolution midfielder has always had pride in his hometown, but now fields much more questions about his upbringing and how the soccer-mad culture helped him grow to the player that he is today.
Now when he comes back home, like he did in a scoreless draw against the Sounders on April 13, he sees among his teammates an excitement that is different than all other stadiums they visit in the league.
“You can see it even beyond the city. Guys around the league love playing in Seattle. They know the crowd’s going to be huge and it’s going to be a good game,” he said. “It’s nothing like any other place in the league.”
That goes beyond the players too.
Arena, another Federal Way native who is now working his way into playing time with the Dynamo in his rookie season, hears it even from people who are new to the game.
“Whether they know a lot about soccer or not, they all want to know why it’s been so popular there,” he said. “It’s a great area to be proud to be from.”
That hometown pride may run deep in local players around the league, but it also is a cause for motivation. In a Houston locker room that also features UW product Mike Chabala, former A-League Sounder Brian Ching and even their head coach Dominic Kinnear once played for the Sounders in the A-League, Hall also takes a lot of pride in having success against the Sounders FC.
“When I come up to play the Sounders, there is definitely pride that this is the area I came from,” he said. “There’s almost a rebellion that I’m from that area and now my job is to shut them down. It’s a fun aspect.”
Add in the four Sounders from the Seattle area – Lamar Neagle, Marcus Hahnemann, DeAndre Yedlin and pool goalkeeper Doug Herrick – along with Dylan Tucker-Gangnes with the Portland Timbers, and the list of local players in MLS is growing by the year.
So is the reach of the influence of coaches in the area. Rowe and Arena were both coached by Bernie James at Crossfire for most, if not all, of their youth career. Weaver and John both count Sounders FC assistant coach Brian Schmetzer among their key influences, with Schmetzer coaching John for most of his youth career and Weaver playing for him at the USL level in 2006.
“If I wasn’t coached by Schmetz, I don’t think I’d be at the level I am now,” John said. “There are things he taught me at 14 years old that I’m still doing and working on today.”
They both also played under the tutelage of Sounders FC broadcast analysts Pete Fewing and Alan Hinton. John played under Hinton in his final season at the club level with Crossfire, while Weaver still considers Fewing, his coach at Seattle University, the greatest influence on his career.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I kept playing and he helped me find that passion for the game again,” he said. “I was a fairly average player, but he showed me what it takes to get to the next level.”
Hall was twice coached by Seattle goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra at the youth level and while he was primarily coached by Kelly Bendixen throughout his youth career, having Dutra as a coach helped his game take a jump to the level where he could succeed at the college level, then on to MLS later in his career.
“He always downplayed it but I knew that he had been a pro and he was larger than life,” Hall said. “Getting goalkeeper-specific training from him was a big step. He had a big influence on my goalkeeping.”
With the growth of the Sounders FC Academy program in recent years, that influence is bound to grow throughout the league. And while the players in the Sounders FC kit will get the bulk of the attention form the growth of soccer in the community, there will always be players far and wide that can say with pride, “I’m from Seattle.”