Long before Stefan Frei’s memorialized save and Román Torres’ MLS Cup-winning penalty kick; before Nelson Valdez’s clutch headers and Jordan Morris’s Flu Game; before Deuce and Oba’s tandem and Djimi’s long-distance stunner; before the Supporters’ Shield, Mario Martinez’s golazo and Ozzie’s Open Cup heroics; and even before Fredy’s brace on Opening Day 2009, Drew Carey showed up on Nov. 12, 2007, to The George and Dragon Pub.
A day before the official announcement, Carey entered the quaint little soccer bar on North 36th Street in Fremont and gave fans a sneak peek at what was to come. He had already teased the news on Monday Night Football that week, and the final preparations of what was slated to be a historic day had already been put into motion. The anticipation of what the reveal was going to look like hung over the Pacific Northwest like misting skies that presided over so many November mornings before it.
The ownership group was strong. Joe Roth had the entertainment background to put people in seats, and Seattle native Adrian Hanauer had kept the soccer flame alive and understood its culture. Carey brought a unique celebrity ownership, and the Seahawks, under the leadership of owner Paul Allen and Vulcan CEO Tod Leiweke, did a great job running the business from the beginning.
“I remember getting to The George and Dragon and being stunned with how many people were already there upon our arrival,” recalled Sounders Chief Operating Officer Bart Wiley. “I remember people spilling out the door.”
So when the morning of Nov. 13, 2007, at last rolled around, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and several members of his staff met with Sounders ownership on the top floor of the Columbia Center in downtown. It was there that the announcement everyone had waited for was finally unveiled:
Major League Soccer was coming to Seattle.
The Sounders brand had been a Seattle staple since the mid-1970s dating back to the North American Soccer League. Many of the club’s former greats starred in the NASL, including current MLS Head Coach Brian Schmetzer. The equity was already there, so the task that befall the ownership and front office was to capitalize on it and turn a minor-league property into a major-league brand.
“The thing that all of us always talked about was that we had to be seen as first class, we had to be seen as just as important as any other professional sports team in the city,” said former Vice President of Business Operations Gary Wright. “We had to not be seen as a lower tier. From the first press conference on, it was pretty evident that it was going to be a success story.”
Season ticket numbers far surpassed the initial budget for which the Sounders had planned. The expectations were high but realistic, and yet more and more fans wanted to be a part of living history, to witness a 1970s relic transformed into a modern-day footballing franchise.
“I don’t think there was any question in anybody’s mind [that it would be successful],” said Wright. “The fan base was here. I think all of us knew and understood that. I don’t know that everybody thought that we would hit the numbers that we hit the first year, but as each month would pass by before we started playing a game, everybody realized we had something special.”
As recently as 2007, the USL iteration of the Sounders had crowds of three-to-four thousand people in what was then Qwest Field. By the inaugural MLS match in March 2009, nearly 10 times that many people cheered on Seattle to a 3-0 win over the New York Red Bulls.
“On Nov. 30, we’re going to have forty-to-fifty thousand people there watching us play for a chance to get to MLS Cup,” said Wiley. “I love having the perspective of three-to-four thousand in there, I love knowing where we’ve come from and I’m excited about the growth that we’ve yet to achieve.”
The Sounders have made no bones about their desire to sell out CenturyLink Field by 2026. One of the reasons Wiley is still around, he said, is because there is still so much work to do. Not many teams in this league have the luxury of playing in a beautiful downtown stadium that has a capacity well over sixty thousand, and with that comes the responsibility and onus of getting as many people in the building as possible.
“Our vision has always been that someday you’ll see that stadium completely full, and hopefully it’s within 10 years,” said Wright. “I think it’s certainly possible.”
The organization has already made massive strives since its fledgling steps a decade ago. It has grown and matured in such a short amount of time. Wiley acknowledges that much of the Sounders’ early successes stemmed from the involvement of the Seahawks, a partnership for which he’s grateful, but since they split in 2014, the Sounders have continued to push the envelope and have emerged as one of the league’s most wildly successful and consistent teams, on and off the field.
The Sounders’ triumphs may have culminated on a frigid Ontario evening last December when the club defeated Toronto FC and lifted its first MLS Cup, but nothing happens in a vacuum. The seeds with which captain Osvaldo Alonso lifted the Philip F. Anschutz trophy into the Canadian night sky started with a single announcement nine years earlier at a bar where many would fittingly gather to watch their beloved team win Major League Soccer’s top prize.
“It all came off perfectly,” said Wright. “I think if you were to ask the commissioner, he would tell you that it was pretty impressive.”