Harkes at The Wall, Part 2 – A trip to watch Seattle Sounders

Our in-house writer continues on his journey of football, this time as a father going to a Seattle Sounders game with his mates, some of them dads themselves. You can read part 1 here.
Seattle Sounders
Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli

It is a Wednesday, and that means midweek football. Kickoff has been pushed back an hour to make it easier for commuters to get out of downtown Seattle and match goers to arrive from work. My friends and I are goers tonight. It is our last get-together before the birth of another child. They live in the north of the city and ride the bus to the stadium. I am coming from the suburbs in the south and need to take the train.

I arrive at the station and gather up my coat and rave green Seattle Sounders scarf. I walk through the bus bay and catch the faint scent of urine. Why do people always piss here? There’s a public toilet 20 yards away that seems like a more convenient choice. A squat man with a neck that disappeared into his muscular shoulders long ago sees my scarf. He looks me up and down and growls, “While you all are sucking each other’s dicks at the game…” Ok, I think, here we go. Some meathead that loves American football is going to offer his unsolicited take on masculinity and sport. “…I’ll be at church!” Oh. That’s not where I thought that was going. He motions to me and an imaginary crowd of dick suckers, “Which is where you all should be!”

I’m excited for the match, and I climb the escalator steps to the train rather than wait passively to arrive at the top. I find my platform and hear the sounds of the station: trains coming and going, PA announcements, and a crazed man yelling profanities. Transit security has come over and is attempting to calm him down. “All I was doing was saying WHAT THIS BAD MOTHERF***** IS GOING TO DO TO THEIR RICH, WHITE ASSES!”

He is an elderly gentleman with brightly colored suspenders that belie his rage. He eventually realizes this guard isn’t going to help him in his fight against gentrification. So, he ambles over to me and shouts,  “THERE’S A GODDAMN TRASH CAN RIGHT HERE!” It’s an inauspicious start to the evening. Thankfully, he decides not to pursue the matter further with me as I get on the train.

I’m glad to be on it, and I enjoy looking out the window at the neighborhoods I used to know well when I lived in the city. The girl in the seat next me is eating street teriyaki with chopsticks. It doesn’t smell pleasant in the tight confines of our carriage. One of the guys I’m meeting asks in our group text if anyone wants a banh mi (complete with accent symbols).  Thanks to the teriyaki though, I’m not really hungry.

A small cadre of Sounders fans exit at Stadium Station. I stay on for one more stop to meet my buddies at a bar north of the stadium. We find a booth at the back and talk about our kids, DIY projects, and health insurance. Basically, dad stuff. Then one member pulls out a flask of bourbon and tops us all off. It is illicit, and it gives the evening a youthful playfulness that is becoming rarer and rarer in our worlds.

We make our way to the stadium. Surprisingly for Seattle at this time of year, it isn’t raining. Our seats are in a section of bleachers that rise up behind the north goal known as the Hawk’s Nest. Our tickets were exceptionally cheap even for the bleachers. When we get to our seats we see why. The fans in the row in front of us brought their floor toms. The drummers came to provide atmosphere, but it reminds me less of fan culture and more of that one kid in class that can’t sit still, always tapping something with his pencil. There is a group of Sounders fans that adopted the motto of Nos audietis in somniis, or “You will hear us in your sleep.” When I close my eyes to sleep at the end of the evening, I do hear the drums, but I suspect it might have more to do with noise-induced hearing loss than anything else.

The smell of ballpark garlic fries cuts through the boom of the drums and pre-game pyrotechnics. One of our number suggest we take a selfie to document the occasion, but the drums have reminded us we are all too old and crotchety for such a thing. The moon occasionally peeks out from behind clouds in the sky opposite us. It’s a beautiful fall night for football.

The match isn’t living up to expectations, however. The first 45 minutes provide few moments of excitement. Even the pep band is rather subdued, with the brass section paying more attention to their phones than the pitch. Halftime brings a merciful respite from the drums.

The second half is slightly more entertaining. The away team, the Philadelphia Union, puts the ball in the back of the net following a smart finish from a difficult angle. The stadium is stunned into silence until the referee signals for a video review. It is my first time being in the stadium for a VAR review. I almost don’t believe it when referee indicates no goal after spotting an offside. It feels unnatural. Not necessarily bad. Just unnatural.

The rest of the match is very stop-start with injuries both real and imagined. The crowd has no sympathy for the Union player that gestures for a stretcher only to hop off the field and re-enter play soon after. Philadelphia has traveled nearly 3,000 miles for this midweek match and decides to settle for a point. More players go down and stay down while the home fans howl in outrage at their gamesmanship. And it isn’t just the fans. The Sounders on the pitch are fed up too, and refuse to give the ball back after the Union put it out so a player could receive “treatment.” Predictably, this doesn’t go down well and there is shoving and an over the top challenge resulting in a red card for the visitors. The mood in the stadium darkens. The moon has long since disappeared behind low clouds, and we feel a few drops of rain. I wonder how water affects the drums in front of me.

The Seattle Sounders push forward in stoppage time to break the deadlock and give the fans a goal to release the tension. But then a mistake from the goalkeeper gifts the away team a late, late winner. VAR will not rescue us this time. One of my companions, the most diehard Sounders supporter of the group, leaves without a word to the rest of us. The rain increases, so the rest of us decide to follow him out and join the stream of disappointed fans making their way home in the dark.

I say a quick goodbye to my friends and hurry to the station. My haste doesn’t matter, as I arrive just after the train’s departure. I watch helplessly as the platform fills with irritable, damp football fans – the refuse of Centurylink Field. The PA cycles through its safety announcements, “Please do not stand on the yellow line.” A couple of schmucks reach their toes out to stand on the line in unison. They laugh at their synchronized idiocy.

A large man pushes his way through the crowd and steps in front of the woman next to me. “Umm… excuse me,” she says pointedly. He turns, looks back at her dead-eyed, and shifts his bulk half a meter to the left. In front of me. His ears are too big for his head, and his face is blotchy from drinking. He smells like cheap beer and disappointment.

The train arrives. We surge to get on. He steps on to the carriage and attempts to position himself to the side of the doors, a prime spot to brace oneself comfortably when the train is full. It’s going to be my spot. One of the best bits of coaching I ever received in my playing career was to get your knees lower than your opponent’s to move him off the ball. I do just that and nudge him to the middle of the car as I enter. There’s not much he can do about it as the carriage is now full, and he focuses on keeping his balance as the train departs. I smile as others jostle him. It reminds me of a story I heard about the Irish poet Patrick Kavanaugh; he would spit on the seat next to him whenever he took the bus to discourage others from sitting beside him. Thus marks my full transformation into crotchety old man. I can’t help but think a Seattle Sounders victory would have at least delayed it another week or two. Maybe the man at the bus bay was right – I should have just gone to church.