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Originally published March 30, 2009 at 9:18 PM | Page modified March 31, 2009 at 9:17 AM

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Danny O'Neil

Converted to the other game of football

Times NFL reporter Danny O'Neil, like many Americans, was a soccer skeptic. Until he spent a game in the stands with rabid Sounders FC fans who showed him their passion for the game the rest of the world calls football.

Seattle Times NFL reporter

Danny O'Neil usually covers pro football for The Seattle Times. On Saturday, he waded into the stands at Qwest Field to immerse himself in the sport the rest of the world calls football.

Sean McConnell stood in Section 122 of Qwest Field, a megaphone in his right hand and his back to the field.

Usually, this would constitute the perfect setup for mocking a certain sport. This is a soccer match, after all, so McConnell wasn't missing much by turning his back on the match. Only two goals were scored in 90 minutes of Seattle Sounders FC's 2-0 Major League Soccer victory over Real Salt Lake.

That's exactly the kind of joke I usually tell. The kind of joke I have told, in fact, right up until Saturday night, when I waded hip deep into a vocal group of Sounders FC fans at Qwest Field. That's where my derision of soccer was drowned in enthusiasm.

McConnell is a capo for the Emerald City Supporters, and during a match he serves as a conductor for the songs, keeping everyone on time. He sat four rows from the field, but wouldn't see a minute of the match except when he looked up to the big-screen video screen on the south end of the stadium. McConnell led hundreds of fans in songs that had a melody, a message and sometimes a good dose of humor.

Sung to the tune of "Guantanamera":

"You couldn't score on Aurora,

You couldn't score on Aurora,

You couldn't score on Aurooooooooooora."

— Emerald City Supporters chant

Mariners fans can't manage to sustain a three-syllable "I-chi-ro" chant for more than a couple of rounds, and here were soccer fans singing entire songs that celebrated the team, imbibing beer to celebrate the team and pointing out the lack of songs from Salt Lake fans.

The Emerald City Supporters stayed on their feet from the moment they marched into the stadium more than an hour before kickoff until the match concluded. Players stopped to applaud their support before leaving the pitch.

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"There is nothing like the bond between players and supporters," said Eric Gilbertson, a software engineer who is one of the core members of the Emerald City Supporters.

I want to be an Emerald City Supporter. It's the highest compliment I can summon for a group that is now more than 600 strong. They wave flags, they sing songs and I left with a surprisingly favorable opinion of the whole experience.

I've been told my whole adult life that this country will eventually embrace the sport like everywhere else on the planet, and I've also got a visceral reaction to the English accents and affectations that U.S. soccer fans tend to outfit themselves with. Didn't we fight a war over that country's influence, freeing us to start our own traditions in both sports and dental hygiene?

But the sold-out opener for the Sounders FC pointed out that the enthusiasm for soccer in this city was more than just speculative, which is how I ended up Saturday at Pioneer Square, at the most aptly named sports bar in Seattle: Fuel. That's exactly what most of the clientele of this establishment were doing, lubricating themselves for a spring Seattle evening that felt more like winter.

I arrived two hours before kickoff in search of a greater appreciation for soccer only to find that I had better start with the way I choose my words.

"You mean football," said Russ Harvex, a Brit with soccer — er, football — credentials, going back two generations. "It's a different language."

And an entirely different wardrobe that includes scarves, which are held up as a badge of inclusion.

I'm one of those Americans who doesn't always grasp the sport's finer points. We are a sporting society afflicted with attention-deficit disorder that generally relies upon a scoreboard for validation. Professional basketball scores regularly run to triple figures and some scoring plays in American football count for three points, others for six.

Loving soccer requires an appreciation of plays that do not produce points because a single soccer goal requires a remarkable confluence of skill, timing and what can only be described as good fortune. It's like a lightning strike — impossible to predict just when, or where, it will happen.

This is the challenge for Americans. Two goals in a game is about average. Three is a cornucopia, and a 1-0 victory? Well, you're just lucky it wasn't a nil-nil tie decided by a shootout.

What do soccer fans do with all that time between goals? Constant, choreographed noise that is measured by a conductor — a capo in the soccer parlance — who spends the match with his back to the field and keeps the chants on time with the aid of a megaphone.

When a Salt Lake player went flailing to the ground, embellishing the effects of what passes for a tackle in soccer, the crowd chanted its indifference.

"Let him die,
Let him die."

It was undeniably harsh, of questionable sportsmanship and entirely awesome by my count. Sold — one more supporter in a city hosting a big-league soccer franchise for the first time in a generation.

Turns out, Sounders FC is no joke, and by the time Saturday's match ended at Qwest Field, I wasn't laughing, I was singing and following the lead of the man who stood with his back to the field.

That would be McConnell, conducting a chorus that is now echoing in my head at the heart of the Seattle sports scene.

"When it's us versus them, you can always count on me,
When it's us versus them, it's a Sounders unity."

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny O'Neil

Danny O'Neil will comment on issues, events and personalities in the NFL. His column will appear on Sundays during the regular season. He also posts most days on the Seahawks Blog.
doneil@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2364

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