The Pioneers

Adam Bate reports on how one franchise has trod a bold path in order to break through the attendance barriers of the MLS.

LA Galaxy might have left Seattle with a play-off victory thanks to Edson Buddle’s fantastic goal – but all the talk was once again about the amazing atmosphere at Qwest Field, home of the Seattle Sounders.

The city that gave the world Starbucks and changed the musical landscape of the 1990's with grunge is now raising eyebrows by doing what no other MLS franchise has achieved – turning people on to soccer.

Remarkably, the Sounders have broken MLS attendance records in their first two seasons. What’s more, the figures are heading in the right direction with the 2009 average attendance record of 30,942 increasing to an impressive 36,173 for the 2010 campaign. To put this into context, of the other MLS teams, only LA Galaxy and Toronto FC managed to attract over 20,000.

The reasons for this are various and may owe much to Seattle’s desire to be different. The franchise was launched in November 2007 with the owners promising a new concept for MLS in order to engage fans. Season ticket holders became members of the club with voting rights, whilst fan groups were actively encouraged in order to generate a unique atmosphere.

Part-owner and US game show host, Drew Carey, even suggested a marching band lead the way to the stadium from Pioneer Square in the heart of Seattle’s sports district. It has all contributed to the sense of the Seattle Sounders genuinely engaging the community and - with the help of Qwest Field’s urban location - the locals have embraced it.

Even after victory in the play-off game, David Beckham was quick to praise the atmosphere generated by the Sounders fans: “It’s like playing in front of a European crowd. The noise, the atmosphere, and the excitement… it’s great to play in. It’s always great to play in front of a crowd like that.”

Beckham’s words echoed the sentiments of Thierry Henry who first visited the stadium when playing for Barcelona against the Sounders in front of an astonishing crowd of 66,484. Henry noted a key difference: “When we played in the Rose Bowl [against LA Galaxy] everybody came to see Barcelona. Here they were all cheering for the Sounders and rightly so.”

Although some tickets for the 2011 season have worryingly increased by as much as 25%, it is to be hoped that the growth of the franchise can be sustained. After all, it seems certain that the key to the long-term success of the MLS lies not with the likes of Beckham and Henry, but with the future of clubs such as the Seattle Sounders.

You can follow Adam on Twitter @GhostGoal