The time has come.
After months, and in some cases years, of waiting, fans of soccer in Seattle finally have their day. Over the last 14 years, they have cheered some great local talent and adopted players from outside the Pacific Northwest knowing that there would always be a perception of the Sounders being minor league.
Tonight at 6 when the Sounders FC kick off against the New York Red Bulls, those perceptions will be in the rearview. Gone are crowds in the 1,600s at Starfire Soccer Complex in Tukwila, replaced by a sellout crowd of 32,400 at Qwest Field, ready to raise their scarves for the newest craze to hit Seattle.
“It may not be the number one sport in America, but they love it here. For me, that was a big part of my decision. I’m looking forward to it,” said Sounders FC midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, who came to Seattle from the English Premiership as a designated player and may make an appearance off the bench tonight after recovering from off-season hip surgery.
“I’m expecting a lot of noise, a lot of passion. It’s one thing to have a big crowd and you get a lot of people some place where you want to feel that passion,” head coach Sigi Schmid said. “We really want to make this a difficult place to play at, just like it is in the NFL. We want to make this a place that teams dread to come in because there is just a passion, the atmosphere, and the support that’s generated by our fans.”
A good portion of that passion comes from the various supporter groups for the Sounders FC. The largest such group is the Emerald City Supporters, who number over 500 and will be based in the south end of the stadium. Not to be overlooked, though, are other groups, like Gorilla FC, City of Reign, Bellingham Border Boys or the Eastside Elite, just to name a few.
All of these groups have a somewhat different approach to a common goal, supporting the club.
They all organize viewing parties for big soccer games, like the US-Mexico match last month, and have a dedication to charitable work. Gorilla FC, for example, recently raised funds for Home Alive and the ECS held a fundraiser of their own.
These hold in sharp contrast to the stereotype of a soccer support group that is as much hooligan as supporter.
“We are supporters first and foremost,” said Greg Mockos of the ECS. “I understand why that would be a concern for a casual fan, but at the end of the day our actions speak for themselves and our actions are not those of hooligans.”
Gorilla FC even went so far as to form under a motto that denounces any unruly behavior – The anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-sexist, pro-party support group.
“It does away with the hooligan aspect. Many have joined us because they see our openness,” said founder Kevin Zelko, whose passion for activism is shared by most members of Gorilla FC. “Within the soccer world, you will always run into idiots. It’s nice to have a platform that allows you to be loud and outspoken. That’s why this is important to us.”
With several different groups meeting under their own banners, it could create turmoil between groups. But that hasn’t been the case with Sounders FC supporters.
“We are all working together and that’s a nice fit. I’m impressed with that,” Zelko said.
While the supporter groups may have been the most outwardly vocal in the early-going with the Sounders FC, the sellout crowd speaks volumes. As does the common appearance of Sounders FC gear and conversation surrounding the team in everyday life.
“My barber knew. The waiters in the restaurants know. My landlord knows. Everyone’s asking for tickets and asking what the team looks like,” said rookie midfielder/forward Steve Zakuani. “It’s exciting. You get that kind of attendance in England and it’s a good attendance. To get that for a new team in this stadium is unbelievable. It’s going to be electrifying opening night.”
It hasn’t taken long for the players to feel that electricity either.
“This is our home now. It’s got to be a staple,” said midfielder Brad Evans, who came to the Sounders FC from the Columbus Crew in the expansion draft. “You look at Columbus two years ago, and it was a few different sections of groups. Last year they came together. It was definitely our 12th man for sure. It makes a huge difference, especially when you know 30,000 people are pulling for you. As a person, it gives you an extra boost.”
Festivities for tonight’s First Kick begin at 4:30 at Occidental Park in Pioneer Square with a March to the Match. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels will be on the march, along with owner Drew Carey, the Sound Wave marching band, supporter groups and other fans.