By IVES GALARCEP
SEATTLE- As much as you can argue it was always a sure bet, and there wasn’t that much risk involved, U.S. Soccer gambled when it chose Seattle as a venue for a World Cup Qualifier. Not because Seattle isn’t an amazing soccer city, but because of the lack of a permanent grass field at the city’s top soccer venue, and because of the travel it would involve for the national team in the middle of a qualifying campaign.
The gamble was worth taking because of this city’s track record supporting the Seattle Sounders, and because of the strong likelihood that holding an important U.S. Men’s National Team match here just might produce something magical.
On Tuesday night, U.S. Soccer’s gamble paid off handsomely, and not only did the national team play very well on a playing surface that some were concerned would yield an ugly game, the crowd and atmosphere for the U.S. team’s 2-0 victory vs. Panama was one that wowed players and observers alike.
“The best,” Michael Bradley called the atmosphere at CenturyLink Field on Tuesday when asked how it measured up to atmospheres at past national team matches. “I think for anybody who was in the stadium tonight, we were all able to experience something special.
“The atmosphere. The noise. I don’t think people sat down for one minute the entire game,” Bradley said. “As players, we can’t stress enough what a big difference that makes. Obviously, we all know what a special thing they have going on here with the Sounders, and to see that carried over to the national team on a night like tonight, a big qualifier and a big night, that was great. We hope to be back here soon and we hope to fill the stadium again.”
Were the concerns about the temporary grass field conditions justified? To a point. The reality is the U.S. has played high-profile matches in such conditions before, including matches against the likes of Argentina and Spain. The difference last Tuesday was that it was a World Cup qualifier, and the theory was that the U.S. was giving up a bit of its competitive advantage by playing on a less-than-perfect field (and by traveling several thousand miles further than it needed to by playing in the Pacific Northwest rather than somewhere on the East Coast).
That was a tradeoff the USMNT was willing to make in order to put the team in an environment that could yield a great home-field advantage. That is exactly what the U.S. received from the more than 40,000 fans who filled CenturyLink Field. Fans who stood and sang and celebrated for the better part of 90 minutes, matching or surpassing the atmosphere of any USMNT home match anyone can recall.
There is no denying that the grass-over-turf set-up had its issues, as evidenced by all the slipping and sliding Panamanian players could be seen doing during the match, but ultimately the field conditions were no disadvantage for the U.S. team. You could argue it helped the Americans considering U.S. players appeared to have far less trouble with it than Panama.
In the end, the decision to make Seattle a World Cup qualifying venue proved to be a master stroke because it not only showed the country that the city’s passion for soccer could translate to the U.S. Men’s National Team, it gives the USMNT another rock solid venue to add to the list, alongside Columbus and Kansas City, which have established themselves as places where the U.S. can count on fervent support and a packed stadium.
What Seattle did was take it to a new level, filling a stadium twice the size of most other regular USMNT qualifying venues. It wasn’t just a stadium full of fans. It was a stadium full of energy and inspiration. And to be sure, it was not just a stadium of Seattle residents. Many of the same fans who have helped turn Portland into one of the league’s best stadium atmospheres also turned out in force, along with American Outlaw members from all over the country.
The pilgrimage to Seattle by so many fans from as far north as Alaska, and as far East as New York, wasn’t just about seeing the U.S. team play. It was also about wanting to experience the spectacle of Pacific Northwest soccer. The result was a perfect storm of fan passion that certainly played a part in helping drive the U.S. team to their most impressive performance in recent memory.
It might take a few years, but the USMNT will return to Seattle eventually (most likely for a HEX match in 2017, if not a qualifier in 2016 or Gold Cup in 2015), and the next time it does, you won’t hear as many questions and concerns as you did this time around.
Yes, travel distance is still an issue, and the Seattle Seahawks aren’t likely to install real grass any time soon, but that doesn’t change the fact that this city has proven without a shadow of a doubt that those minor inconveniences can’t and won’t stand in the way of Seattle maintaining a rightful place as a home for the U.S. Men’s National Team for years to come.