Seattle Sounders: MLS, B-teams and a search for identity

With frequent rebranding and relocations, it wasn’t easy to be a soccer fan in USA, but the sport and its communal pull have both strengthened over time. Seattle Sounders and their B team form one such great story.
Clint Dempsey has been a massive influence at Seattle Sounders, and the it's safe to say his picture will adorn a fair few walls at the academy dorm rooms. (Art by Onkar Shirsekar)
Clint Dempsey has been a massive influence at Seattle Sounders, and the it’s safe to say his picture will adorn a fair few walls at the academy dorm rooms. (Art by Onkar Shirsekar)

There is a rule in advertising when selling insurance: don’t talk about insurance. It is boring, and most consumers have a negative association with it. So, when DNA Seattle was tasked with creating a campaign for PEMCO, a regional insurance company in the American Pacific Northwest, the agency focused instead on what people liked. And what people in the region liked was the identity of the region itself.

With this knowledge, the creatives set out to highlight Pacific Northwest stereotypes and came up with a tagline – “We’re a lot like you. A little different.” They created a series of profiles on quirky yet instantly recognizable denizens of Washington and Oregon like Sandals and Socks Guy, Urban Chicken Farmer, Year-Round Shorts Dude, and the “I know I am, I’m sure I am” Sounders FC fan. The ad campaign was incredibly successful at communicating a core element in the Northwest identity: being different.

After living here for almost a decade, I appreciate the eccentricities and unique characteristics of those around me. They are at ease with themselves, totally comfortable with their own quirks, maybe even too comfortable sometimes (I just cannot get on board with the Seattle utilikilt). Their taste for the weird and offbeat led many here to embrace football when it was a fringe sport in America. The Northwest is a hotbed for the game, and it is wonderful to see how popular the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers are.

I make it out to Centurylink Field to watch the Sounders a few times each season. I would like to go more often, but each experience is a small crisis of identity because being a fan in America can be complicated.

For instance, I grew up supporting my local team, the San Jose Clash. I say “local” somewhat tongue in cheek; the team was located 260 miles away from my home (about the same distance as London to Sunderland). They were absolutely awful. So awful, in fact, a rebrand was in order, and the club came to be known as the Earthquakes. It was a throwback to the old NASL San Jose Earthquakes which featured a late-career George Best. There were some good times with a few MLS Cups and a Supporters Shield, but they abruptly came to an end as the team moved to Houston. For comparison’s sake, if a football club in Paris picked up stakes and moved to Moscow, it would still not be as far as San Jose to Houston. What was I to do? Support the zombie club? Or choose to the next closest club, the Earthquakes’ rivals? You see: complicated.

This period coincided with my own move abroad, and I lost interest in the league. When I returned to the United States I found the club had been resurrected, but I had settled in the Seattle. I was able to watch the Sounders regularly with new friends and family. It did not quite feel right to go all in with the Sounders though, especially when the Earthquakes were in town.

It became even more complicated as I moved farther to Seattle’s suburbs. I had a hard time identifying with the city. Thankfully, the Seattle Sounders joined fellow Major League Soccer clubs in introducing a reserve team to competitive play of the (then) third tier of American soccer in 2015. It just so happened that the Sounders 2 home stadium was a few minutes walk from my apartment.

I was also intrigued because the Sounders created the team with the peculiar twist of fan ownership. Well, to be precise, the club gave a non-profit corporation composed of fans a 20% liquidation interest in Sounders 2. It may not technically be fan ownership, but it’s about as good as it gets in the American professional sports. It was something different from the rest of the MLS reserve sides in the league, and it gave supporters a reason to feel more invested in bridging the gap between the academy and the first team.

This specific point in a player’s career is a perennial subject in discussions of youth development. Everyone agrees these academy graduates need competitive game time, but a consensus on how to go about that is difficult to find. When the former chairman of the English Football Association, Greg Dyke, proposed introducing a League Three combining the top half of the Conference and 10 Premier League “B” teams, he was met with fierce opposition; when it was announced that Major League Soccer would introduce reserve teams into the United Soccer League for the 2015 season, the response consisted of a collective shrug of the shoulders. There was some concern that it would affect the profile of the league because who wants to go to a glorified exercise in youth development? I did because it was convenient, but I also was turned off because of a lack of identity in the team. S2’s crest, for example, is a whitewashed version of the first team’s badge.

The attendance figures of the United Soccer League bore this out. New York Red Bulls II, for example, only managed to average a little over 600 last year despite being the best team in the league over the course of 2016. An efficient use of resources to build long-term roster depth is great, but it is not exactly a huge draw for spectators.

Despite some poor attendance figures, the MLS-USL experiment has produced a number of successes. In the 2017 MLS season, every single club featured a player with USL experience. For the Sounders, Nouhou Tolo was the obvious standout. The young fullback led S2 in minutes played before moving to the first team in 2017. His performances soon led to his first international cap with Cameroon. MLS’s roster restrictions would have made his initial signing a massive gamble; S2 and other reserve sides mitigate the risk and allow clubs to take a chance on exciting, international talent.

While there are a limited number of overseas signings, the bulk of S2 is made up of academy players ready for the next step. This year’s team is especially young. Few players in the starting lineup each week are even old enough to purchase alcohol in the United States. Playing against seasoned professionals is an excellent finishing school for prospects to add one or two aspects to their game.

The independent clubs in the USL can also boast of success. Nashville SC, Sacramento Republic, and Indy Eleven have leveraged their regional identities into an average attendance in six figures this season. FC Cincinnati recently became MLS’s latest expansion team. The US Soccer Federation recently recognized the league with Division II status (the tiers in American soccer are weirdly fluid). This effectively ensures greater media exposure and increased sponsorship figures. However, this boon also comes with restrictions, such as each team must have a 5,000 capacity stadium. S2 needed a new home.

The Sounders’ solution to the stadium problem was, in true Northwest fashion, unique to all the other teams in the league. The answer? Move in with a local minor league baseball team, the Tacoma Rainiers. The baseball club is taking care of business operations while the Sounders continue to oversee the football side. This arrangement not only solved the stadium issue, but also gave S2 a new identity.  While the move came too quickly for a rebranding to give the team a new name to go with its new environment this season, it is in the works. Also in the works is a brand new soccer specific stadium in central Tacoma. Serendipitously, I too had recently moved to the area.

Located 26 miles to the south of Seattle, Tacoma is “a dusty old jewel in the South Puget Sound.” Rudyard Kipling passed through the fledgling city in 1889 and described it as “staggering under a boom of the boomiest,” and he promptly left for Canada “to draw breath.” The second half of the 20th century saw a slow decline of its industries and gave the city a rough reputation. There was common joke in the region about Seattleites being afraid to go to Tacoma. These days, however, it is the Tacomans who fear Seattleites and the gentrification they bring. Residents enthusiastically embrace the “Grit City” nickname and character.

So, when Sounders 2 arrived in the city, Tacomans responded. S2’s first game at Cheney Stadium smashed the previous attendance record with a sold out crowd of 6,049. The team is now far enough away to have its own identity, but close enough to still train in with the first team. Proximity to first team is helpful on the pitch, but it also gives the young players access to the support structure of a top-level football club.

Fitting a field inside a baseball diamond is a tricky task, however, and one that many fans were nervous about. The New York Yankees, for example, refuse to remove the pitchers’ mound at Yankee Stadium ahead of New York City FC home matches, and the football pitch is wedged uncomfortably into the outfield. Thankfully for everyone in Tacoma, the pitchers’ mound is not a problem. The whole process of removing it and putting grass over the infield costs about $40,000 a pop though. That is no small amount of money for lower league team, and it highlights everyone’s desire to make sure this partnership works.

Minor league baseball is famous for its ability to bring in fans by creating an environment of fun and spectacle. It would not survive without it. With match day operations turned over to the Rainiers, football fans are now treated to a circus of entertainment at home games. It is delightfully offbeat, and, of course, different. Everything from the music played (David Bowie’s “Fame” during the starting lineups) to bizarre mascots (Epic Sax Gorilla) fits perfectly with the Northwest genre of weird.

Entertaining or not, the young Sounders 2 players can always count on a core of hardcore Sounders fans to cheer them to the next level. With Cheney Stadium’s configuration, they can usually be found behind first base (the south goal) in the suitably named Tallboy Terrace – for international readers, a tallboy is large can of cheap beer in the US. Their tifos, singing, and green smoke illustrate how each game means so much more than a project in youth development.

The Dutch writer and theologian Henri Nouwen pointed out that identity does not come from what we say or do; rather, it comes from who loves us. Based on the early success of the club’s message of “We R Tacoma,” S2 and its fans have found an identity in the City of Destiny. I have too.