When I write about soccer here at ESPN I seem to take more heat than when I focus on any other sport. In nearly 30 columns that I have written about different sports here, I received more negative comments about the sole column in which I wrote a little bit about soccer. I think that my humor is perhaps misunderstood, or that there just may be a lack of the old knee-slap reflex when it comes to the average soccer fan.
A Seattle friend of mine who is huge into European soccer and the MLS Seattle Sounders said he was fed up with the Seattle radio sports commentators who still disregard soccer in this city. His point was that, heck, the Sounders are drawing more fans in this town than the "traditional" baseball Mariners … and winning a lot more, too.
Back to the point of the soccer fans not having a sense of humor, I think I may have a clue into that area now. My Seattle friend went on to tell me that, yes, soccer fans are like that kid in school who always got teased and has grown up to have a real adverse and over-the-top reaction in a public place whenever he perceives a slight angled his way.
Last week, I received my first bona-fide writing assignment from ESPN. I was to cover the Manchester United vs. Sounders FC "friendly" in my hometown of Seattle. I received tickets for myself and my family. Pretty cool, indeed. I guess that the time has come for me to look into some soccer for real.
First off, I have a wife and two beautiful daughters. My girls love me and their mom, but it is summer and maybe the last thing they wanted to do was go to some "dumb" sporting event with the two of us. No worries, Mrs. McKagan and I were fine to have an unexpected date-night amongst 67,000 soccer fans.
Secondly, this city has gone absolutely hog wild for Major League Soccer. Sure, the Sounders have been here -- on and off -- since the 1970s in different leagues. But until they joined MLS, Seattle's soccer team played a far-removed second-fiddle to the Seahawks, Mariners, Sonics, Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon and the rest.
I had been meaning to somehow catch myself up with the Sounders. I have never ever been into soccer at all, but felt lately that I have been missing out. It is impossible to turn a blind eye to soccer in Seattle anymore.
In addition to receiving my tickets, I was invited to meet and chat with Sounders co-owner Joe Roth, an affable Los Angeles film producer. Hearing that Mr. Roth was not a Seattle resident made me dubious from the start in a Clay Bennett steal-the-Sonics type of way. What I came to find out about him, however, was quite the opposite from what I had first assumed.
Roth has struck sports-ownership gold in Seattle. He has found a ready and willing audience here. Roth studied the local mindset and fine-tuned his approach to fit the odd sensibilities of the Pacific Northwest soccer fan.
It's about Facebook and other social-media (the Sounders page has more than 212,000 likes).
It's about finding out your season-ticket holders' likes and dislikes and professions, and modeling a ticket-buying site that will place like-minded fans with one another.
It's about control. Members of Sounders FC's Official Members Association can hire and fire the general manager every four years, if they have enough votes.
It's about being "loose." The environment in and around Century Link (formerly Qwest) Field is a sort of Wild West vibe. Sure, cops and security are around -- but it's really not in a forceful way. There is an air of "police yourself-ness" that, in the end, proves to be the best way for this fandom to keep things safe and knucklehead-free.
It's about sellouts. The Sounders home games are the most well-attended in MLS.
On to their opponent last week, Manchester United of the English Premier League. Holy franchise! When I was driving to the game through downtown Seattle, my wife and I were completely dumbstruck by how many Man U fans were everywhere. I am pretty confident that most of these fans did not travel all of the way from the UK to come to this game. (Although the Sounders are a big deal here in Seattle, they are a tiny minor league team compared to Manchester United. I'm sure most people in the city of Manchester probably had no real idea or care that their team was doing some "training" stateside … and this was only training to the Red Devils.) No, I found out at the game that Manchester United is the biggest worldwide team for sports-branding. They make the Yankees and Lakers merch sales seem like lunch money.
Now on to the game and the subject of "friendlies."
I'm not sure that I got the point of this game. Or, was there supposed to be one? The Sounders are in the middle of a season where they are fighting the mighty L.A. Galaxy for the top spot in the MLS's Western Conference. The Sounders played their starters for only the first half, putting up a pretty good fight actually. Seattle trailed 1-0 after 45 minutes, and it could have been a great way to provide a boost for the rest of the MLS season with a win or draw with Man U.
But, no, we pulled the starters after the half and Man U went on to school the hapless bench while winning 7-0. If you're not going to take it seriously by putting the most competitive lineup on the field for 90 minutes, then why play your starters in at all and risk injury to a star player in a game that makes no difference? Am I missing something here? I may be a soccer neophyte, but I know enough about sports to appreciate when a team is giving its best to win, as opposed to an egalitarian approach better suited for an under-9 soccer league.
I guess I will hear about that point from you readers, "friendly" or otherwise.
I must say, though, that the environs at this match were so much more friendly and calm than Seahawks games. Of course, I don't really seek out friendliness at an NFL game.
But MLS is different, and should be celebrated as such. There really just is no comparison to the "traditional" American sports-triumvirate of football, baseball and basketball. Just as those sports and their rules and fans are different from one another, so too is soccer here in the United States. I actually now kind of dig it.
Musician Duff McKagan, who writes for Seattle Weekly, has written for Playboy.com and has his autobiography due out later this year, writes a weekly sports column for ESPN.com.