SEATTLE — Everything broke right for the Sounders, who were propelled for nearly two hours by a sea of Seattle fans in blue and green, who brought their signature electric energy to the field.
That was history – and it felt like a collaborative effort between a team and its supporters.
For over 20 years, no Major League Soccer team had ever won the CONCACAF Champions League tournament, which includes the best teams from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. But the Sounders ended the drought with a downpour in the Pacific Northwest: a 3-0 win over Pumas of Mexico on Wednesday.
How important was the win?
Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey called it a shot at football immortality ahead of this week’s game.
In a hype promotional video, none other than retired Seahawks icon Marshawn Lynch called it a “big (expletive) game.” At halftime on Wednesday, with the Sounders leading 1-0, MLS commissioner Don Garber stood in his suite at Lumen Field, looked me in the eye and called that game the “greatest game in league history.”
Since its inception in 1996, MLS has sought to become an American league of quality to rival the world powers. But until now, failure has been a regular rite of passage for MLS at this annual tournament, where teams from the rival Mexican league have won the last 13 Concacaf tournaments.
Well, the Sounders buried those mistakes on Wednesday.
Initially, the match was choppy and bogged down by physical play that forced two key Sounders, João Paulo and Nouhou Tolo, to leave with injuries. But Seattle showed its characteristic resilience. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player, supported a strong defense and Sounders continued to attack until striker Raul Ruidiaz scored from a deflected shot late in the half. In the 80th minute, Ruidiaz added another goal after a smooth counterattack.
Nicolás Lodeiro sealed the win with an 88th-minute goal and rushed to the stands to celebrate amid a frenzied crowd.
The victory qualifies the team for the FIFA Club World Cup, a tournament full of football kings. Most recently, Chelsea won from the Premier League. Either Liverpool or Real Madrid will represent Europe next. Just being in the same draw as teams with that pedigree is entirely new to MLS
So it’s fitting that the Sounders will lead the league into this new abyss. Since entering MLS in 2009 during a wave of expansion, they have enchanted this football-rich city by winning two MLS Cup championships in four rounds to the finals. Seattle has led the league in all but two seasons, with area fans gifting Lumen with the same passion Seahawks fans are known for. Maybe more. Tournament record: 68,741 fans came to see the home team play Pumas. On a Wednesday evening.
How did Seattle become an American soccer giant?
There is no single answer. Part of this is the city’s history of embracing the unconventional and the extraordinary – which still describes professional football in the American sports context. Seattle spawned Boeing and Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon. There was grunge rock and Quincy Jones to the world. Jimi Hendrix went to high school three miles from Lumen Field. Bruce Lee honed his martial arts just a short walk away.
One of his great works of art is a troll sculpture standing under a bridge. It has become customary to drape it in a mammoth blue and green Sounders scarf before big games.
The love this city has for football in all its forms — from the Sounders to the NWSL’s OL Reign to colleges and junior leagues — is also the product of a specific past and team: the original Seattle Sounders of longtime no more existing North American Soccer League.
From 1974 to 1983, these Sounders teams were part of the first serious effort to bring major competitions from the United States to professional football in this hemisphere.
If you ask me, a Seattle native who grew up during this period, I’ll say that love in particular began with a single game.
I’ve called it the Pelé game since I was 9 years old. So I took a city bus downtown to see this original version of the Sounders. The date was April 9, 1976, the first sporting event ever held in the now-demolished Kingdome.
A crowd of nearly 60,000, then the largest in North American football history, watched as Seattle hosted the star-studded New York Cosmos and its leader, the greatest player football has ever seen: Pelé. The Black Pearl, as he was known, had come to the NASL to celebrate one last stanza of his career – and as an ambassador to ignite the game in North America. I don’t remember the details of that game as much as I remember admiring the lithe and powerful Brazilian.
Pele did not disappoint. He scored two goals in the 3-1 win.
The game was a harbinger. These early Sounders players quickly became local legends, deeply woven into the fabric of the city. At the time, it seemed to me that a Sounder visited every classroom in every public school. In 1977, the Sounders made it to the league’s Soccer Bowl title match. They played to a full house in Portland, Oregon, a three-hour drive south, and lost 2-1 to Cosmos in the last game Pelé never played.
“I still have his jersey,” Jimmy McAlister said in a phone interview. I could almost see the smile in his voice. A McAlister, a defenseman on that Seattle team and NASL Rookie of 1977, told me how he somehow had the courage to ask Pele about his storied No. 10 jersey. The legend obliges. The jersey is now in McAlister’s locker.
“People call me from time to time and want to buy it,” he said. It is not for sale. Some things are worth more than money. The jersey contains memory and soul.
McAlister loves the modern Sounders. He praised their team spirit, worker morale and growing talent. Raised in Seattle, he is one of many sounders who have stayed in the city after retiring from the band. Nowadays he runs one of the best youth development clubs. Many others stayed to teach the game, training in clinics and in high schools and colleges. Some helped manage a now-defunct minor-league team – also called the Sounders.
They kept football alive in the dormant decades between the demise of the NASL and the birth of the MLS
On Wednesday night, nearly an hour after the game, fans stayed at Lumen Field. Huge swathes of them. Cheerful chants rumbled onto the confetti-covered field. The players responded by holding up the gold Champions League trophy. Unlike the 1976 Kingdome game – the original Sounders versus the glittering, star-studded Cosmos – this duel was unmemorable because of the opponent. It was memorable because of the home side who just put themselves on the international map. And that would certainly make Pelé, football’s longest-proudest ambassador, more than a little proud.