MLS Seattle: Rich in Natural Resources

As evidenced by last week’s SuperDraft, the Seattle area is producing more than just software, apples and airplanes these days.

As evidenced by last week’s SuperDraft, the Seattle area is producing more than just software, apples and airplanes these days.

Ciaran O’Brien and Ely Allen are just latest in a long line of high-caliber soccer players produced from these parts during the last 30-plus years. It’s good to know that Washington State often has an embarrassment of riches in this regard. But beginning in 2009, Seattle may not be in the mood to share with the rest of MLS.

If history repeats itself, Seattle’s new club will be stocked with the best young players from the area, and hopefully it will prove a boon to making this a competitive franchise and fast.

Whereas importing foreign players was once considered the fast track to becoming competitive in the domestic pro ranks, the Northwest’s rich natural resources could now be the key.

It marks a huge turnabout from the days when the original Sounders arrived in town.

“On our first roster, there was one or two local kids on the roster,” recalls Jimmy Gabriel, a player/assistant coach from 1974-76 and later head coach. All the rest were English, Scottish and Dutch guys.

“Now, I’m not sure Seattle will need a foreign guy,” adds Gabriel. “They could put an all-American side out there, and that would be a very strong team.”

Given the number of past and present U.S. National Team players hailing from the Puget Sound region, Gabriel’s words are more than credible. Not just Kasey Keller and Marcus Hahnemann today, but Chris Henderson and Brent Goulet before. Fill-in the gaps with proven professionals and it’s a formidable first 11, and then some.

Americans Can Make the Difference

Already it’s become both fashionable and favorable to field MLS lineups primarily comprised of native sons.

Take a look at Houston’s winning lineup for MLS Cup 2007. Of the 12 players who saw action for the Dynamo, 10 were Americans and they were playing without two regular starters, both born in the U.S.

Long ago Gabriel believed in the kids next door. In 1984 he put together a team of local amateurs, FC Seattle, and challenged NASL clubs and the U.S. Olympic team in a five-game series. They won one game and tied another. Later they evolved into the Seattle Storm of the A-League.

“Back then, soccer was imploding all over the United States,” says Gabriel. The NASL soon folded and it was feared that the sport’s forward momentum would be stopped. Instead, FC Seattle proved that there was an alternative to relying on expensive foreign players.

“It could’ve been a case of soccer being dead–poof!” said Gabriel. “Instead, FC Seattle was a positive thing, it helped the sport keep going, it kept kids playing and staying interested.”
With Washington producing more and better players all the time, the Seattle MLS franchise figures to have plenty of players who will both be on a first-name basis with fans but also bear fruit in terms of victories.

“You can go out and get a superstar, but to be successful in Houston, they’ve pretty much stocked their team with American or North American players,” notes Jimmy McAlister, the first local player to make it big in the NASL and now a local youth coach.

Pyramids in Progress

The fifth pick in this year’s draft, Tacoma’s O’Brien is bound for Colorado, and Kent’s Allen was chosen by the Galaxy with the 21st pick. Some day soon that means of dispersal will effectively be rendered meaningless by the MLS academy movement.

All league teams are now in the process of building development programs. What was first a voluntary act on the part of a handful of clubs is now a directive to establish a pyramid of youth teams from U15 on up. Some MLS teams run their own while others have forged relationships with existing premier youth clubs.

Locally, both Crossfire Premier and Washington Premier sponsor U17 teams in the 64-team U.S. Soccer Development Academy. They play five teams­including one aligned with the Colorado Rapids–three other western states.

The MLS realizes that developing rather than purchasing players is good business.

McAlister led the way for local players when he won a starting position on the ’77 Sounders. He now coaches the Washington Premier academy team, and believes that a team comprised of at least several local players is much more than a marketing ploy.

“I would love to see the new MLS team to made up of all North Americans, if not all local kids,” says McAlister. “No other sport in the United States really does that. Because of the way their draft works, the Seahawks have, what, one local guy, Marcus Trufant from Washington State.”

A Winning Combination

Neither the original nor the second generation Sounders have sacrificed winning for offering opportunities to locals. McAlister was NASL rookie of the year when Seattle advanced to its first Soccer Bowl. Jeff Stock and Mark Peterson were mainstays (and Peterson the North American player of the year) of the ’82 finalists.

“You could say that Seattle has done more than any franchise I know, whether the Sounders in the 80s, in the rebirth, the Stars or the Sea Dogs–we did more to keep the best local guys around,” claims Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, who has been affiliated with all of the aforementioned. Indoors, the Stars came within one game of winning a MISL crown and the Sea Dogs went all the way 1997.

Seattle area teams have been at the forefront of soccer’s Americanization movement for more than three decades. First with McAlister, Stock and Peterson in the NASL, then FC Seattle and another run of success with the Sounders winning titles in the USL, again with strong local representation.

Owners Joe Roth and Adrian Hanauer are beginning to search the world over for playing personnel to best represent the city, but two dozen or so slots open, in the end there should be plenty of local flavor. Working alongside Hanauer, Schmetzer says the commitment to keeping and developing young local players will remain intact.

After seeing the pool of talent progressing through state ranks, and watching a legion of fans line-up to support the new team, McAlister sees good things already taking shape. Once the Seattle team takes the field, still more fans and more pro player prospects will be generated.

“It will be a lot of hard work, but there’s every reason to think Adrian (Hanauer) and the quality people surrounding him have got a chance to be wildly successful,,” says McAlister. “There’s a lot of different ways they can come out on top.”