So there’s a massive hole in your soul—a void in your life that, for five months or so, was filled with football. In Seattle, you’re not alone. Over the past few years, Seahawks fandom has exploded. Now, everyone’s a “12.” Your neighbor. Your yoga teacher. Your dentist. Your mother-in-law. And with the NFL season over, ending in disastrous fashion, at the one-yard line in Arizona as time ran down on Super Bowl XLIX, you may find yourself search for something—anything, really—to sate your hardcore sports cravings.
Did you know there’s another “football” out there? A football known the world over? A football that was called football long before, you know, football?
It’s true, and it might be exactly what you need right now.
Much like the Seahawks, Seattle Sounders fandom is an honest-to-God phenomenon. And with the club’s season set to kick off March 8, the time for you, forlorn football fan, to jump on the bandwagon is now. But if you’re new to the mysterious sport, there are a few things you’ll need to know . . .
You won’t be alone Since 2007, Seattle Sounders FC has shared a home with the Seahawks. During that time, the club has been one of the most successful, and most enthusiastically supported, teams in Major League Soccer. In 2014, the average attendance at Sounders home games at CenturyLink Field was 43,734—by far the highest in the league. To put the number in perspective, Toronto FC had the league’s second highest attendance last year . . . at 22,086. In 2013, the Sounders drew a club-record 67,385 fans to see the rivalry game against the Portland Timbers. That’s a ton of fans, no matter what sport we’re talking about. (And with CenturyLink’s upcoming expansion, boosting its capacity to circa 69,500, the Sounders could possibly break the all-time attendance record for a stand-alone soccer match in the history of America.)
“There is a rabid, passionate, loyal fan base in Seattle,” offers Sounders play-by-play man Ross Fletcher, who enters his fourth season calling the action for the club. “I might be biased, but I really think it’s unrivaled around the rest of the league. . . . It kind of brings rock ’n’ roll to the sport.”
Um, about the scoring Here’s the thing: There’s just not much scoring in soccer, and to appreciate the game, you’re going to have accept this. Sure, it can be a challenge, but it’s doable. As Mike “The Gasman” Gastineau puts it, “It’s almost like a goal is a diamond. There’s so much that goes into one, that it makes it beautiful.”
As a longtime sports-talk radio personality, for years the Gasman’s bread and butter were the big three—football, baseball, and basketball. In other words, he was like most mainstream sports fans in Seattle. But the local excitement generated by the Sounders’ 2009 move to MLS led the Gasman to soccer, and he’s been a season-ticket holder ever since. In 2013 Gastineau even published a book about the club, Authentic Masterpiece: The Inside Story of the Best Franchise Launch in American Sports History. If he can learn to appreciate soccer, the general lack of scoring included, so can you. “The goals are just titanic,” Gastineau says. “That’s part of what I’ve learned to love.”
Pitch perfect Soccer is played on a pitch. I know you might be tempted to call it a field (it’s very field-like, after all, with its grass and sidelines), but using the proper terminology will help ingratiate you with your new soccer buddies.
But why? The term pitch, Fletcher hypothesizes, likely comes from “the dark recesses of the 1800s.” To put it another way, even he has no idea. What’s certain is that in England, where Fletcher was born, they play soccer, cricket, and even rugby on the pitch. Same goes for Australia. “It’s just one of those things that you accept as part of the lexicon of the sport,” he says.
Ties happen Ties usually stink. I get it. Football has all but done away with them. Baseball and basketball don’t have them. Hockey found a way to get rid of them nearly a decade ago. But, in soccer, ties—or better, “draws”—are real, and there’s real strategy involved with them. Sometimes—gasp!—a team will even play for a tie. The key here is the overall standings. In soccer, it’s not about a win/loss record, it’s about points.
Teams earn three points for a win, one for a tie, and zero for a loss—and at the end of the season the team with the most points finds itself in first place. So as you can see, sometimes salvaging a tie out of a tough road match-up becomes a victory in itself, or sometimes a tie is all you need to secure a playoff spot.
“If other sports allowed for ties, you’d see teams playing for them occasionally,” Gastineau offers. “It’s a part of the sport. You don’t have to like it, but you’re going to have to accept it if you become a fan.”
The art of the flop The first time you see a soccer player writhing in pain on the pitch, only to be loaded onto what appears to be a World War II-era stretcher, you assume something terrible has happened. My God! He’s torn every tendon in his knee! Then, miraculously, after being carried off by a team of MASH paramedics, the player returns mere moments later. Now you feel confused, even cheated.
What you’ve witnessed is the time-honored art of the soccer flop. Flopping, for those who have yet to experience the magic, is an artful deception—thespian theatrics designed to trick a referee into believing a foul has occurred, thus earning an advantage for the floppers’ team.
Some call it cheating, and the MLS has even taken strides to limit it. But the fact remains that, in some form or another, flopping will always be part of soccer. “It’s very much an ingrained part of the game in Europe and South America,” explains Fletcher. “It’s a really interesting issue for me, because the context is cultural. I learned very quickly that [flopping] is a very un-American thing. Elsewhere in the world, for better or worse, it’s an accepted dark art of the game.”
Gastineau, meanwhile, calls flopping part of the “theater of sport,” while admitting that he considers the practice “bullshit.”