Sean McConnell plays an important role in the stellar atmosphere at Qwest Field, but as a capo he doesn't even see most of the match live.
Sean McConnell estimates that he probably only saw about 40 percent of the Sounders FC home matches live last year.
To question the dedication of the 37-year-old Clarkston, Wash., native to the Rave Green, though, would likely garner a laugh of impatience.
You see, McConnell is in amongst the rowdy band of fans at the south end of the stadium known as Emerald City Supporters. However, his support takes on a relatively unique form.
With his back to the pitch, McConnell is the capo - the one who shouts instructions, chants, songs, and other words of encouragement to the ECS through his megaphone.
“I don’t have the greatest singing voice,” McConnell grinned. “But it’s also having a knack for feeling the game and having a sense of when to do a song. Being a founder of the group I was able to have a lot of say in what role I wanted to have in the group.”
McConnell has followed the Sounders since the team started in the A-League in 1994, watching the likes of Marcus Hahnemann, Peter Hattrup and Brian Schmetzer on an Alan Hinton-coached squad at Memorial Stadium that finished first in the American Professional Soccer League. He watched as a small group of supporters, known then as The Pod, made some noise, but lacked the organization that we see in the ECS now.
After the club moved from Memorial Stadium, he turned his attention toward Major League Soccer.
Then in 2004, he got back into the support culture in Seattle as the Sounders motored to the A-League final, where they fell to the Montreal Impact.
The Pod had gotten bigger and more organized, led primarily by David Falk, who McConnell offers much of the credit for the rapid growth of the supporter groups in recent years. The Pod was very family-friendly in their support, though, and the younger Sounders fans were beginning to wind in a different direction.
“When it started to go in a younger, more agro direction, he was happy to step aside and let us run with it,” said McConnell, who works by day in the finance department for Getty Images. “I think there is more of a place for The Pod now – a more family oriented group. And they’re bringing that to the Kitsap Pumas now, which is great.”
In the off-season between 2004 and 2005, McConnell and others who were avid Sounders supporters got together and decided to put more effort into organizing the supporter culture in Seattle and that’s when they changed to the ECS and things started to look more like the face-painting, chanting, flag-waving crew at games today.
“The winning culture brought more people out, as did the more active efforts in two-poles and overheads. That is when we added some of the current leadership, Keith Hodo and Robby Branom,” McConnell said.
These groups of fans weren’t mere friends who went to games together and got a kick out of themselves. They came from all over the Sound and converged in the southeast corner of the stands (you may have heard the phrase “ECS in 113” before). Over the years, their numbers and reputation grew, until they hit a dramatic spike last year when the club moved up to the MLS, and that meant a move to the general admission section in the south end zone. They even developed a nickname for the end zone well before the season opener – The Brougham End.
“I’d never seen a lot of the people on opening day before, but they all responded pretty well,” McConnell said. “When players look up and see us going crazy, they’re going to play that much stronger. People are enthusiastic about making that happen.”
It’s not just the players noticing either. ESPN analyst and National Soccer Hall of Famer John Harkes was on the broadcast of MLS First Kick in 2009 on ESPN2. His words of praise on the air gave the supporters something to be proud of. Harkes took it one step further, though, when he paid McConnell and the ECS a visit after the Sounders 3-0 win over the New York Red Bulls and told them, “You made me feel like if I close my eyes I could be at a game in Europe. Not just the supporter group, but the knowledgeable fan base as a whole.”
Now, every time Harkes calls a game in Seattle, he will come down the south end and talk with the supporters, which McConnell deems a huge compliment.
In his second year capoing for the MLS club, McConnell has developed something of a routine on match day. That meant loading all of the tifo gear (banners, flags, etc.) three hours before kickoff and setting it up in the south end. After that, he would head up to meet up with the rest of the ECS at Fuel bar before leading them in the “March to the Match” not far behind the Sound Wave. He then helps organizing tifo presentations and keeping fans aware of the south end culture. After the game he tears down the flags and banners, ensuring that the section is as clean as it was when he arrived.
It’s the three and a half hours in between, highlighted by 90 minutes of soccer, that truly separate McConnell’s day from everyone else.
With his wife Jamie nearby (they even spent an anniversary together in the rain at Swangard Stadium in Vancouver supporting the Sounders in the USL days), he leads the thousands standing in the south end zone in songs and chants to cheer on the home side.
There are some staples to the gameday experience. At kickoff, they sing the Perry Como song, “Seattle” (frequently referred to as “Bluest Skies”). At the 12th minute, it’s “Roll On Columbia” in honor of the minute that Colombian Fredy Montero scored the first goal in Sounders FC history against New York on opening night. In the 74th minute, it’s “Sounders ‘Til I Die” to recognize the first year the Sounders played in the North American Soccer League.
Other songs are mixed in and the group is always testing out suggestions to expand their songlist, but the process to get them into the gameday rotation typically involves several attempts at a bar to test the reception of the song.
One such song was “Bluest Skies” and the classic tune has become an anthem for the team. The players and coaches even recorded a rendition that was distributed to season ticket holders from the inaugural season.
“It was never our intention to make Bluest Skies an anthem, but that’s a song that no one else in the world could use,” McConnell said. “Everyone can sing it. The front office noticed that and it has stuck.”
Over the years, McConnell has seen an increased amount of respect and understanding for the supporters’ role in the club. This year, the front office even assisted the ECS by offering up a microphone and speakers to replace the bullhorn McConnell was using to lead the group previously. With the increase in numbers of the supporters on the south end, comes a greater need for volume from the capo.
“It’s good that the front office doesn’t tie our hands. They trust us and we do our best not to violate that trust,” said McConnell.
At 37, he’s hoping to pass the capoing torch on to another ECS member, and has even had others assist him along the way recently. When that day comes, he plans to take a more active role in away games, among other things.
“Being the age I am, I’d like to pass it on to someone else, so I could enjoy my beer and watch a match,” he said. “Eventually I want to still be an influential part of the group, but maybe not have as much influence on the gameday part.”
Look for McConnell behind the south goal Thursday night when the Sounders FC face the Philadelphia Union in MLS First Kick on ESPN2. Kickoff is set for 6:30 pm and there will be a liveblog of the game and all of its atmosphere on SoundersFC.com.