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Originally published Wednesday, February 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Seattle embraces Sounders FC

Despite a free-falling economy, Sounders FC has become a Seattle sports success story, reaching 20,000 season tickets less than a month before their regular season opens.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Go ahead, try to sell a new professional soccer franchise in this economy. Try to encourage people to buy tickets when they're only buying the bare necessities.

Try to sell a Major League Soccer game in a city that couldn't hold on to its basketball franchise, in a country that has been reluctant to embrace the sport.

Not that long ago, Sounders FC seemed like an impossible dream. The notion that this city could give its heart and its dollars to a team before it even played a game seemed preposterous. The thought that Seattle could love a team before it knew the roster was absurd.

But the impossible is happening here. Before its first kickoff, Sounders FC is a success.

Some time today this fledgling franchise will announce that, three weeks before the opening game against the New York Red Bulls, it has sold more than 20,000 season tickets.

"It's an indescribable feeling," said Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid, who has been in the league since 1999.

"Having been around the sport in this country for a long time, to see a foothold like this for the sport of soccer in this community is just absolutely phenomenal. Without playing a game we've been embraced by this community."

Fans are buying tickets on spec, believing in the game and trusting the Sounders FC bosses. They are buying tickets for the game even before they know most of the names.

"Some are soccer fans who are starved to see soccer at this level in their community and are maybe less concerned with the names," said Schmid, before leaving with his team for a week-and-a-half of training in Argentina. "I mean there really weren't any names until three or four weeks ago.

"But these are people who want to be involved at the beginning of something as well. To be involved in something at the outset is always exciting, and it's our challenge now to make sure those people want to come back, game after game and year after year."

Sounders FC has been a marketing marvel. Its leaders have done almost everything correctly, from admitting their mistake and listening to the fans who wanted Sounders included in the team's name, to bringing Kasey Keller home to be their keeper, to signing Schmid, who has won two MLS championships and has been coaching in this country since 1980.

The team has tapped into a fan base that wanted big-time soccer to return here since the North American Soccer League folded more than two decades ago.

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Sounders FC has rewarded a fan base that has filled Qwest for summertime friendlies involving storied sides like Chelsea and Real Madrid, and international teams like Brazil and Mexico.

Twenty-thousand season tickets.

It's good news for the team and good news for the town. It is an indication of the passion the city feels for the sport.

Last season, the Los Angeles Galaxy had the league's best attendance, averaging 26,050. The only other team to average more than 20,000 was Toronto. The MLS's unofficial average was 16,310.

And considering the 20,000 who have signed on to this first season with Sounders FC probably are the city's hard-core soccer fans, imagine the franchise's growth potential.

"I think if we can convince another 10 or 15,000 to come to our games, we're not only going to be a success story for soccer in the U.S.," Schmid said, "I think we'll establish some benchmarks for any sport. But the main thing for me right now is that when we walk out on that field on March 19, there is going to be a caldron of noise.

"It's going to be like no other venue in the league. The thing I'm excited about right now is being able to take our team into that stadium and feel that emotion and feel that fever that is going through the stands. It's going to be a tremendous day."

A day that beat the odds. The first day in a long life for MLS in Seattle. A day to celebrate.

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

Copyright © 2009 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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