SOS: Save Our Sounders (or their Timbers)

While we wrestle with an out of town owner who wants to drag the Seattle SuperSonics into the Great Plains, there is another professional sports drama going on pretty much unnoticed.

A California family is trying to choose
between Portland and Seattle for the home of their brand new Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise. Both cities have historically been great soccer towns, both professionally and culturally (kids and adults playing soccer in rec leagues, the kind of thing soccer team owners look for in a market). The only problem is both cities already have top flight professional soccer teams: the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers.

Update: The Seattle Weekly has a story on the feelings of the hard core Sounders fans about the behind the scenes machinations of the MLS, the USL and the Sounders. Here is the reaction of one of the subjects of the story, who is a fan of bringing the MLS to town and not a fan of the current ownership of the Sounders.

Instant reaction to the story: aside from the plot about fan v. fan, if the current Sounders ownership is losing $300,000 to $400,000 on a smaller operation than an MLS franchise, maybe they don't deserve a shot at the MLS. They probably never would have made it anyway. If someone else wants to spend $35 million on the MLS's franchise fee and take a shot at the Seattle market where the current ownership is obviously failing, give them the chance. I'm done complaining.

Both the Sounders and the Timbers, who are members of the United Soccer Leagues' (USL) First Division, are guaranteed a quick death when the MLS comes to town. The USL is a true mom-and-pop major sports league, having grown out of the ashes of several regional professional soccer leagues when professional soccer was first getting back on its feet in the mid-80s. In its two divisions (not including an associated, amateur developmental league) the league hosts over 20 clubs ranging from small to large cities.

On the other hand, the MLS is a recent upstart in the professional soccer world. The MLS has taken its first decade spending itself into the red in order to "establish" professional soccer.

In those ten years, they have also instituted some questionable practices, including allowing different owners to take on more than one team. Serious major leagues outlaw this practice because of fairness issues. If I own one team, and my opponents own three teams, how can I be sure that I'm competing on a level field for talent and fan support?  They've also begun signing rich television contracts and possibly the world's best player.

Now, the MLS can seemingly cherry pick new markets that they'd like to move into. After paying the MLS's $35 million expansion fee, the Keston family is choosing a market in the soccer rich Pacific Northwest. It seems like the MLS never seriously considered giving the owners of the two current teams a shot at playing at a higher level.

The owner of the Sounders (who has deep roots in the local soccer culture) seems willing to move his club elsewhere or possibly take a roll in the new organization and I don't know how the owner of the Timbers (which he actually just recently purchased, along with the Portland Beavers baseball team) is approaching the Kestons.

But, this entire situation smacks me in a Walmart sort of way:

A small operator serves his local community well. For years he plugs along, selling screwdrivers or professional soccer. Then Walmart or the MLS suddenly comes to town and spends it considerable cash to put the competition out of business. Or the local competition sees the writing on the wall and just leaves town.

The weird part of this is that in practically every other soccer league in the world, the Timbers and the Sounders (current owners and all) would have a good a chance as anyone to play at the highest level. Most soccer leagues in the world play in a relegation/promotion fashion: the worst teams in the top league get relegated to a lower division, while the best teams in a lower division are promoted.

This type of system is purely capitalistic. Any person who wants to start a team can compete as long as their willing to start at the bottom rung of the league system. The better they perform, the more people they draw, the more money they make, the better players they can hire.

In that kind of system the Sounders and the Timbers, current local owners and all, could play well in the USL-1 and be promoted to the MLS with little fear of outside owners barging in and putting them out of business. They would at least be playing under the same rules. But, in America, we reward those who already have the cash on hand and give them a spot at the big kids table table.

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Have you ever been to a Sounders game
Yes, and it rocked
No, and don't plan to
Yes, when they played indoors
No, but man that sounds cool

Votes: 10
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It's an old story that American sports have been cool to adopting the promotion/relegation style system. No surprise there.  The Sounders are great, don't get me wrong, but...

Very few people would cry over losing a AAA ballclub while gaining a Major League one.  Maybe you would, fair enough, but most wouldn't.

Seattle and Portland are strong soccer towns, and it would be great to get a MLS team in town with all that that brings.

by butseriouslyfolks on Tue Jun 12, 2007 at 11:50:48 PM PST

* 1 none 0 *

Beckham isn't even close to being considered the "best player in the world" anymore. He's old and slowed down, and useful only for free kicks and corner kicks.

He slowed Man U and England down, and he slowed Real down. I wouldn't mind seeing Ronaldinho or Thierry Henry play here, but that's a pipe dream -- UNLESS Seattle gets an MLS franchise here, then we'd see them in a "friendly."

We'll never get that top-class level of soccer here if the USL is clogging up the works. They are at least two levels below the international class. It is painful to watch those games sometimes.

Seahawks Stadium was built for top-flight international games, and once FIFA approved Field Turf, that pressure became inexorable.

Bring MLS on -- the sooner the better!


If perception is reality, then the world must be flat and the sun must revolve around it.

by ivan on Wed Jun 13, 2007 at 08:09:06 AM PST

* 3 none 0 *

Obviously international teams are willing to come to Seattle, so if we had an MLS team we'd see some truly world-class players (i.e., one level above MLS and 3-4 levels above the Sounders) a few times a year in friendlies or U.S. national team games.  And given that the Madrid-Salt Lake game last year had 65,000+ attend, the demand is probably there for an MLS team.

A couple things about soccer stadiums:
**They're much less expensive than football/baseball/basketball - $100-125 million is probably the total cost
**Most owners understand there's a public/private partnership involved, and aren't looking for a free ride, so the public segment of that could easily be under $50 million, and there's probably no need for new road infrastructure around the stadium
**The stadiums often include a number of practice fields which can be used for grass-roots events like school championships or weekend youth tournaments, plus as mentioned above they're often constructed to be good venues for concerts in the off-season
**There's a new women's league starting in the next year or two.  So the chance of having both genders have pro teams utilizing the stadium here would be a very real possibility

It's conceivable that if MLS does come here, and public interest is sufficiently high after a year or two, a public/private partnership involving $50 million of taxpayer money could be viewed as a popular expenditure.  Especially if the Sonics & Storm have either worked out a compromise or have left town.

by sean baratt on Thu Jun 14, 2007 at 02:39:54 PM PST

* 10 none 0 *

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