About a month ago, Sean McConnell logged on to SounderCentral.com, a Web site dedicated to his favorite professional team, the Seattle Sounders. McConnell is a member of the Emerald City Supporters (ECS), a group that can typically be found at Sounders home games wearing team scarves and leading chants, cheers, and jeers.
On SounderCentral.com, McConnell, who coordinates game-day color for the ECS, participates in message-board threads under the handle "Sounder4Life." But this time, when McConnell punched in the site's URL, a strange thing happened: Instead of entering the edgy, ECS-focused site he'd helped design, he was redirected to something called GOALSeattle.com, a general soccer site that appeared to be more interested in discussing the possibility of bringing a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise to the city than in Sounders goings-on.
This switch in the site's focus is the handiwork of David Falk, another member of the ECS. Through the years, Falk has been one of the most strident supporters of the Sounders, who play in the United Soccer Leagues (USL) First Division, a league one rung below MLS on the pro soccer ladder. In 2003, Falk created SounderCentral.com, which quickly became the destination of choice for Sounders fans looking to keep up with the club. As the one with control over the site's domain name, Falk has been the primary caretaker of the site.
Falk's unannounced maneuver took Sounders diehards by surprise, and has made him persona non grata amongst fellow ECS members, who chafe at the elimination of their primary virtual meet-up spot and the new site's relegation of the Sounders to a topic of secondary importance. "'Sounder 'til I die' doesn't mean 'Sounder 'til they mention another team,'" says McConnell.
If anyone should be wedded to the Sounders, it's Falk. A fan of the club going all the way back to its North American Soccer League days, he's faithfully followed the Sounders through the glory years of the 1970s (the team regularly sold out the Kingdome), the lean times in the 1980s and 1990s, and finally its latest incarnation, when Adrian Hanauer, whose family owns Pacific Coast Feather Co., purchased the team in 2001. Since creating SounderCentral.com, Falk has poured thousands of hours and dollars into the site, and also collected photos of more than 5,000 pieces of memorabilia for an online Sounders museum, located at GOALSeattle.com.
Falk says his turnabout was the product of a private, long-standing battle over what he believed was best for soccer in Seattle. "What do you put first, your city or club?" Falk says. "What's better, the continuation of the USL Sounders or an MLS club? It's difficult for anyone to argue that continuation of the Sounders is best for Seattle soccer."
Though the Sounders have always been competitive on the field, Falk became more and more disillusioned with the front office, which he thinks isn't making enough of an effort to raise the team's profile. And it's hard for Falk to accept the fact that any of the great players the team develops—such as U.S. National Team members Brian Ching and Marcus Hahnemann, and Preston Burpo and Maykel Galindo of MLS's Chivas USA—will never be long for Seattle, returning only with their new clubs for exhibition games.
"It's no longer enough to have a second-division team and have players we develop come back and kick our ass every year," says Falk. "Thanks, but no thanks. It's taken me years to reach the boiling point that we're just fucked."
In May, MLS announced that it had sold its Pacific Northwest franchise rights to Southern California real-estate magnate Michael Keston, who's stated that Seattle and Portland are the two markets he's considering. He's expected to decide between the two sometime this summer.
Falk says that despite numerous efforts to increase participation, the ECS has stagnated at a few dozen members, resulting in a clubby vibe on SounderCentral.com. Meanwhile, Seattle's competition for an MLS franchise is home to the Sounders' USL rival Portland Timbers, who boast a 1,000-strong "Timbers Army."
So when MLS came winking at the door, it gave Falk the impetus to recast his Web site. "I decided that I could live with myself best by steering away from the Sounders, embracing MLS, and getting new people talking about soccer," he explains. "I was not willing to say nothing and have that perceived as a lack of interest in MLS."
Though Falk says he's at peace with his decision, he understands the reaction from his friends at the ECS, as voices like his in the small community are rare. "It could certainly be interpreted as being disloyal," speculates Falk. "They think I should be bunkered in my little Sounders world, the little mouse flipping off the elephant before he gets squashed."
Fans like McConnell, however, view the big league's most recent overture with a healthy dose of skepticism. The 1997 referendum that created Qwest Field was passed on the backs of soccer fans, as Paul Allen secured more than $300 million from taxpayers by pitching the stadium as a football and soccer facility. The MLS commissioner at the time, Doug Logan, even sent letters to Sounders season-ticket holders, insinuating that if they voted for Qwest, they would get an MLS team. The referendum passed, 51 percent to 49 percent, a margin of 36,780 out of 1.6 million votes cast.
But in 1999, Logan was replaced by Don Garber, and MLS moved to create smaller, custom venues for its teams, rendering 67,000-seat Qwest obsolete in the league's eyes. Now, the league all but requires potential franchise owners to either have a 20,000- to 25,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium in place or promise that one will be constructed. "At the time, I think everyone thought Qwest was the perfect place for MLS," says Hanauer, "but the model has evolved."
In 2004, Hanauer led an ownership-group bidding to snare an expansion franchise, only to lose out to Dave Checketts, the former president of Madison Square Garden, as well as current owner of the St. Louis Blues hockey team. Checketts, who has numerous ties to Utah, insisted on placing the team in Salt Lake City, and his plan for a soccer-only stadium assuaged the league's concerns over market size. "A stadium deal was vital to MLS coming to Salt Lake," says Spencer Checketts, Dave's son and director of marketing for Real Salt Lake. "Ninety percent of your revenue comes from having your own stadium, and MLS now hangs their hat on this."
Hanauer says his team loses between $300,000 and $400,000 per year, and that he operates the Sounders as a labor of love. Should MLS come to town, he suspects the Sounders will either fold, move, or drop down to a lower league. "I haven't said anything official about that, but I'm a pretty rational guy," says Hanauer. "The idea of an MLS franchise and a USL franchise coexisting is pretty unlikely."
While McConnell shares Falk's frustration with the ECS's lack of growth and insists he would welcome an MLS club, he says he prefers to focus on the bird in hand. "The way I look at it, I've always had a team to support," he says. "I don't want to think about MLS until I don't have a USL club."
Ultimately, the philosophical differences between Falk and McConnell are unlikely to determine whether or not Seattle scores an MLS team. Hanauer says the supporter groups like the ECS have "zero" effect on an ownership group's calculus when evaluating potential markets. "[An MLS team] is a $30 million to $80 million investment, so it's not something I or any potential ownership group is going to be influenced to do or not do based on a micro-set of the overall market," he says. "Although we respect the ECS and try to accommodate them as best we can, we don't run our business based on what it's thinking or doing or asking for."
Though McConnell and Falk insist that they remain friends, the former admits that he has avoided talking at length to Falk about his defection. "It's really distracting," McConnell says of Falk's change of heart. "I can understand David's disillusionment, but I thought it was really preemptive for him to take down SounderCentral.com before the season's over. What if the MLS thing doesn't pan out? Is he going to put the site back up if we don't get [a team]? Why kill something before it's dead?"
Falk has missed the past two Sounders games, and says that when he returns he won't sit with the ECS section. "I'm a short, pudgy, 45-year-old schoolteacher," Falk laughs. "Let's be real. If you want street cred, don't look my way. [The ECS has] had their chances. I've been there to encourage them, and they've fallen down every time."
McConnell does see a silver lining in the turmoil. In the past, the group had been entirely dependent on Falk to manage its Web presence. Now, the ECS will have more control over its image and destiny, and members recently met to discuss setting up a new site. "It's a frustrating position," says McConnell. "But at the same time, it forced our hand to do something we had to do anyway."
Falk meanwhile, takes a pragmatic view of the whole saga. "I say it's worth having the Sounders die so the city can bring in the highest-level team possible," he says. "It's an extra bonus if they keep [the] name and colors. If they don't, just buy a new scarf."