SEATTLE – Perhaps my personal favorite anecdote about the Seattle Sounders’ inaugural Major League Soccer match involves the hawks swooping out of the rafters to attack doves released as part of a mock kickoff ceremony.
Those directly involved tend to carry warmer, fuzzier memories.
On Sunday evening, eight years to the day when they opened their expansion campaign with a 3-0 win over the New York Red Bulls, the Sounders will unveil their first MLS Cup championship banner. There’s something full-circle about the scheduling quirk that brings the Red Bulls back to CenturyLink Field on the anniversary of that groundbreaking opening night.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer has often referenced that 2009 match against New York as a seminal moment in the history of Seattle soccer. He would know.
Schmetzer signed with the original Sounders of the North American Soccer League as a teenager fresh out of Nathan Hale High School. He came into his prime right about the time the old NASL folded in 1984, and he is part of the generation that kept the flame of the game alive in America through a series of minor-league and indoor leagues during the nation’s soccer dark ages.
Deep in the recesses of his mind, Schmetzer can recall the big crowds that flocked to the cavernous Kingdome during those early NASL days. Fresher in his memory are the United Soccer League days at the much humbler Memorial Stadium when they would consider themselves lucky if a few thousand fans turned out.
Schmetzer, then an assistant coach for those expansion Sounders, heard rumblings about the 20,000-plus season-ticket holders for Seattle’s first MLS season. He also remembers hearing walk-up ticket sales for the opener at CenturyLink Field were going fast.
“We heard the number 30,000. But you never knew what 30,000 felt like until you walked out,” Schmetzer said of the crowd for the Sounders’ debut. “When we walked out there, it was pretty cool. The first time you heard the noise, it was unbelievable.”
Longtime Seattle Seahawks vice president Gary Wright, who helped spearhead the Sounders’ transition to MLS, also remembers the sensory thrill of walking onto the field during pregame warmups.
“It was spectacular,” Wright said. “Standing in the tunnel, you had goosebumps and tears in your eyes.”
Wright and the business-side of the Sounders organization hit on an idea that seems obvious now but was somewhat novel in MLS at the time – make every game an event, a spectacle. Whereas most teams confined their prematch festivities to a small section near the midfield stripe, the Sounders blanket the entire field with giant flags and banners. Flames shoot out from behind the goal. A brass band that still rankles traditionalists plays out of the north end of CenturyLink.
And, somewhat infamously, in an episode described in comically gruesome detail in “Authentic Masterpiece” – the definitive book about the club’s launch – a pair of doves were released from the end line, only to immediately be preyed upon by a pair of hawks that lived in the stadium rafters. One dove careened into the windows of the suite level with a thud. Another was carried off in the talons of one of the hawks.
Luckily for the Sounders, that happened during a dry run in front of a mostly empty building a few days before the first game. The dove idea was scrapped. The fortuitous breaks for Seattle have only multiplied since.
Jordan Morris, the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year who grew up just across the I-90 Bridge in Mercer Island, was a preteen sitting in a suite the night of that first game against the Red Bulls. Images of that night helped cement the bond that would lead Morris to turn down overtures from German Bundesliga club Werder Bremen and sign with his hometown team.
“When they’re calling out the names, that’s what I remember,” Morris said. “That I wanted to do that someday, to have my name called out while I’m walking out onto the field.”
Kasey Keller remembers the sense of relief. The veteran goalkeeper had signed from Fulham of the Premier League the previous summer, and for months he practiced with the USL version of the Sounders just to stay sharp.
Keller also remembers the nerves. Though he’d played in Europe’s biggest leagues and multiple World Cups with the United States men’s national team, playing for a first-year MLS franchise was a different kind of challenge.
“I felt a huge amount of pressure not to have those fans go home disappointed,” Keller said. “This is what we wanted. We want that relevancy.”
Keller, who grew up in nearby Olympia, felt the buzz around the city but knew how fleeting it could be. The Sounders stepped into the void in the local sporting scene left by the departure of the NBA team, the Sonics, to Oklahoma City, but Seattle’s collective eye tends to wander without consistent success.
“The last thing we wanted them to do was say, ‘Eh,’ to have that blasé feeling of ‘This is what the hype was all about? The team goes and gets their butts kicked, and who really cares?’ ” Keller said.
Instead, the opposite happened. In front of a crowd of 32,608, Colombian midfielder Fredy Montero scored to put the Sounders in front after 12 minutes. Montero added another goal with 15 minutes to go to set the final score at 3-0.
The Sounders would win their first three matches en route to a playoff berth in their inaugural MLS season.
“Momentum was built because we were relevant from Day 1,” Keller said. “There was an excitement based on it not only because of the expansion, but because of the atmosphere we created.
“It was such a perfect storm between so many influences, and we felt like we weren’t going to let down our part of it on the field. If we wouldn’t have been any good, definitely I don’t think we would have had the momentum that we built.”
In the years since, the crowds have continued to grow. The wins have continued to pile up, culminating in the club’s first MLS Cup championship, a feat to be celebrated on Sunday night against the team against which it all began.
“I don’t lack for confidence and belief. You set your own expectations,” Wright said. “Had we not [been competitive], though, it could have gone sideways.
“It kept the magic going. It kept everyone believing.”
Matt Pentz covers Major League Soccer for FC Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.