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Originally published August 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 22, 2007 at 2:06 AM

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Steve Kelley

Seattle worthy of another shot at quality soccer

When the Sounders came to town in 1974, Seattle was a kinder, much gentler sports town. The summer calendar was light and this quirky group...

Seattle Times staff columnist

When the Sounders came to town in 1974, Seattle was a kinder, much gentler sports town. The summer calendar was light and this quirky group consisting mostly of rogue, middle-of-the-rung Brits touched something in the city's sports heart.

Those summer nights at Memorial Stadium were transporting. Sounders games took us some place new. They gave us a hint of what football in Europe felt like.

Coach John Best, with his 2,000-watt personality and his British accent, was the perfect salesman.

Rugged striker John Rowlands slam-dunked headers like Shawn Kemp would later slam-dunk lobs. Speedy Davy Butler streaked down the wing, a precursor to Steve Largent's fly patterns. And keeper Barry Watling was the last line of defense, a closer like J.J. Putz.

The first sellout crowd in North American Soccer League history — 13,876 — was in Memorial Stadium. The next year seating capacity was expanded and the Sounders drew several crowds of more than 17,000.

And it never rained on the Sounders in those two summers outside. Never. One of the symbols of those wonder years was the hat Watling wore to shield his eyes from the sun setting in back of the Seattle Center.

For much of the 1970s and 1980s, professional soccer had a home here. The first sports event inside the Kingdome was an exhibition game between the Sounders and the Pele-led New York Cosmos.

It was a sellout. Imagine that, 58,000 people came to watch an NASL exhibition game. And they were loud and stayed loud through the Dome's early years.

When the Mariners arrived in 1977, the Sounders still averaged 24,228 fans and drew an average of 22,578 the next season.

Soccer worked in Seattle. And the NASL was working, until it got too greedy, expanded too rapidly, spent way too much money on way-over-the-hill superstars like George Best and Gerd Muller.

Now, Seattle is a much different sports town. It is more sophisticated, more demanding and less likely to embrace a team just because it wears the city's name on its uniform.

When the Sounders began, nary a discouraging word tumbled from the stands. Just ask Mariners first baseman Richie Sexson if all that has changed in 2007.

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Still, Seattle remains a soccer town. There is a healthy part of the sports community that is hungry for quality soccer.

Last year's friendly between Real Madrid and D.C. United sold out — 68,000 tickets in two weeks. Summer exhibition games featuring Manchester United, Chelsea and Celtic have been guaranteed big box office.

The latest incarnation of the Sounders, playing in the United Soccer League, is expected to draw as many as 10,000 for its U.S. Open Cup match Sept. 4 against Dallas, the best team in Major League Soccer.

The game is growing in this country. The United States is producing more and better players. The U.S. team that won this summer's Gold Cup might have been the best and brightest ever.

And, in case you weren't paying attention, 66,237 fans filled Giants Stadium on Saturday to watch the Red Bulls beat David Beckham and the L.A. Galaxy in a wildly entertaining 5-4 match.

The MLS, which will add a 14th team in the Bay Area next season, is averaging 15,000 fans per game and there are beautiful new soccer-first stadiums near Los Angeles and Dallas and in Toronto, Denver and Columbus.

Toronto, an expansion team, is filling its soccer-specific stadium for every game. And the quality and diversity of the investors in the league is improving noticeably.

Soccer is growing, and the best league this country has to offer could be coming to Seattle as early as 2009.

A group headed by Los Angeles movie executive Joe Roth and Sounders managing director Adrian Hanauer appears to be the favorite to bring an expansion franchise to Seattle. The cost will be between $30 million and $35 million.

The league still has some questions about the viability of Qwest Field, but with modest modifications and the help of the Seahawks, those concerns can be answered.

With all of the angst over Clay Bennett's long-term intentions for the Sonics, the fast-approaching possibility of the MLS in Seattle has drawn very little attention. But the announcement could come as early as next month.

If it is done right — and there is no indication it won't be — the MLS in Seattle would be something to celebrate.

It wouldn't be a return to the innocence of the '70s. This isn't Barry Watling redux.

This is an even better product, and it would be another major-league sport for this major-league city.

It would be Pele's "beautiful game," returning to a town that appreciates soccer and deserves another shot at the big time.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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