- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

SEATTLE | Its flag planted atop a glowing blue and green Space Needle, Sounders FC has staked its claim in Seattle.

The marketing efforts of the MLS expansion franchise are omnipresent. Billboards requesting “Your full 90” stand next to any major thoroughfare. The team put on a television show in search of a 25th man for the roster that received a large viewership. It sent out kits with Sounders FC scarfs, has international media organizations pounding on the door and the backing of a state that is said to have the largest adult coed soccer participation in the country.

The push appears to be working as the new club prepares to kick off 2009 MLS play Thursday when it hosts the New York Red Bulls at 9 p.m. on the Qwest Field pitch.

The clouds so long associated with Seattle settled over and poured on its sports teams in 2008. Last season the Mariners became the first franchise with a payroll of $100 million or more to lose more than 100 games. The Seahawks, preseason favorites to win the NFC West, ended their playoff streak at five years. The NBA team formerly known as the SuperSonics is about to wrap up its first season in Oklahoma City following relocation of what was the city’s longest-standing franchise.

“It wasn’t a very pleasant story going on in our city,” minority owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “We came in and had a pretty good story to tell.”

Seattle’s soccer affinity was seeded 35 years ago with the Seattle Sounders of the North American Soccer League. After a dark period, the Seattle Sounders re-emerged, developing into a force in the USL first division, winning two titles in the last four years. Fans recently filled Qwest Field for international friendly matches. Amid this backdrop, high enthusiasm for Sounders FC has emerged thanks to a near seamless marketing effort and pent-up fandom.

In an attempt to fill spacious Qwest Field, Sounders FC brought in recognizable U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller, a Washington state native. Its designated player is bolt-blue-eyed Freddie Ljungberg. The former captain of the Swedish national team and Calvin Klein underwear model is tabloid worthy on the other side of the pond, a poor man’s David Beckham where poor men earn $2.5 million a year in base salary. Coach Sigi Schmid led the Columbus Crew to the MLS Cup last season, earned MLS coach of the year honors, then was wrestled away by Seattle.

Even the ownership group carries panache. Everyman celebrity Drew Carey, the host of “The Price is Right,” is a part owner. The organization often trots out Carey for public appearances; after all, he’s the chairman of Sounders FC Alliance, the club’s member association. The other Hollywood facet to the organization is majority owner Joe Roth. Roth has served as chairman of Walt Disney Studios and 20th Century Fox. He now heads up Revolution Studios, which put out “Black Hawk Down.” Paul Allen of Microsoft fame is also a part owner.

The exposure and name recognition worked. The opener sold out in the first hours tickets were available. The demand to get into Thursday’s game is so high, the organization had to expand Qwest Field’s soccer seating to accommodate 32,400 fans. Season-ticket sales were capped at 22,000 to allow single-game availability. D.C. United averages 19,835 patrons a game.

“It would be hard to say this isn’t the most successful launch of any professional soccer team ever in the United States,” Hanauer said. “I think that certainly is something we’re proud of, something that MLS and other possible franchisees are looking at and trying to figure out how to emulate. Some of the things in our situation were unique, some certainly can be copied.”

For most professional expansion teams, reality sets in once the games start. But Sounders FC feels it has assembled a more than competitive roster, headed by Ljungberg, anchored by Keller and jolted by young Colombian forward Fredy Montero. The roster includes nine MLS veterans and a handful of foreign and former USL Sounders players. Hanauer says with a quick jell and a little luck, Sounders FC can “win a pile of games.” Participating in the MLS Cup, which Seattle will host this year, seems unlikely.

“Everything’s ready to go,” Schmid said Tuesday. “We just need the people in [Qwest Field], the crowd noise, the excitement, the hoopla, the adrenaline, all that stuff.”

Since you can be new only once, questions of longevity remain. Sounders FC shares Qwest Field with the Seahawks, the town’s pre-eminent sports team. At a news conference last fall to introduce Keller, Hanauer said he hoped the Seahawks would rent from Sounders FC one day. If the organization’s start is any indication, that may not be as crazy as it sounds.

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