REMEMBER ALL THE COMMOTION at Qwest last spring? All the chanting and neon green clothing and people who insisted on wearing scarves despite the warm weather? And then remember asking someone what it was all about, finding that Seattle had a fancy new Major League Soccer team, and feeling left out? We feel you. But now, as the Sounders FC prepares to kick off its second season on March 25, is the perfect time to review what you missed and what you need to know to join the party. (And it is a party.) We promise not to call you a bandwagon jumper.

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A FEW WORDS FROM KASEY KELLER
Kasey Keller’s still got it.

The Olympia native could have hung it up after a stellar 17-year career in Europe—where he was considered by most to be the best American goalkeeper export ever—but he came back to his adopted home of Seattle last year to captain the Sounders FC. He could have coasted into retirement—like some of his friends in MLS thought he would—but he was the second-toughest goalkeeper to score on last season. And as one of the oldest players in the league—he’s 40—he could play the part of the diplomatic elder statesman and serve up bland sound bites, but he’s more than happy to speak his mind.

My biggest concern wasn’t that we weren’t going to get good crowds. My biggest concern was that we would be a disappointment.

For the most part, you’re not coming to MLS to make money. If I was just going to play to make money, then I would have stayed in Europe. The main reason I came home was to be a part of something when I’m done playing.

I had made a good living in Europe, but I hadn’t made a crazy living. I wasn’t coming home and looking to see which of Bill Gates’s homes I was going to buy.

I see MLS being around in 30 years now more than I did probably 10 years ago. There were a couple times, I think, that MLS was close to going to the wall.

I joke that the job that I truly want after I retire is [Sounders CEO] Tod Leiweke’s. I’m not going to retire in 2011 or 2012 or whatever and step right into Tod’s job, but that would be a pretty cool job to aspire to.

The amount of pride I would feel as a GM or a head coach of an MLS franchise would depend on how many players I could develop who were being bought by teams in Europe. MLS teams have a $2.3 million salary cap. That’s an average salary for an English Premier League player. So how on earth can I try to keep this guy if he’s truly a world-class player?

Sometimes, I just sit there and think, I catch a ball for a living. You know? That’s kind of a random thing to do and make pretty good money at.

This is professional sports, and we all have a very finite playing career.

If you’re a lawyer or a doctor, at 40 or 45 years old you’ve got all your bills paid off, you’ve got your practice sorted out, now you’re just hitting it. You’re just in your wheel house. Me? I’m basically done.

In pro sports, if you’re doing things the right way with your city, people can live vicariously through you. They think they know you when they don’t.

You can be popular as a player. You score a touchdown, and people are going to like the fact that you scored a touchdown. But they might not necessarily like you.

I have some big rock star friends, and I’ve been backstage with them. I’ve not been in a lot of crazy stuff, but I tell you, there’s been a couple events that I’ve been to in the last couple months that are like, Holy shit, what the hell is going on here? I was propositioned on two separate occasions for threesomes with my wife.

I remember a couple years after I got to Europe, a reporter asked me, “Do you think it’s a good thing that all of these foreign players are coming to play in England?” I said, “Well, I am one of those foreign players.” And he said, “Well, you don’t count.” Somehow, I had transcended being a foreign player.

One of the worst parts of team sports is the subjective decision on who gets to play or not. If I’m a tennis player or a golfer, it doesn’t matter how bad I am; if I beat that guy, I beat that guy.

I remember a player talking to me this season after we’d come out of a hard game. He was dead tired and mentioned something like, What could possibly be the difference between Europe and this game we just played? And I just started to laugh.

Unfortunately, we have too many kids in this country who think they should be in Europe, being the leading scorer, but they’re not ready mentally to get there. Or, they’re not willing to go over there, start at a lower level, and then fight and improve and prove themselves. Nobody over there gives a shit what you did over here or who you are.

I had an agent years ago that coined a phrase that I’ve quoted many times. He said the hard part about dealing with so many Americans was that they didn’t know that they didn’t know.

People loved watching our games on TV because of the atmosphere at the stadium. You can feel that coming through the TV.

I’ve had so many conversations with friends who have come home from Europe to play in MLS, were disappointed, and basically said, “What am I doing here?” And the hard part for me was to talk to them and say, “I’m sorry, but I haven’t had that experience.”

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LISA GANGEL’S MOST MEMORABLE MOMENTS OF 2009
The KING 5 sports reporter and maven of Sounders pregame analysis rolls her personal highlights package from the club's inaugural season. 


1. A Rave Green wave of support
Who didn’t get chills at the sight of 32,000 soccer crazies raising their Sounders scarves before the team’s first match last March? “Their passion for this game and this team was so raw and natural, I was like, ‘Where is this coming from?’ ” Gangel says.

 

2. The late-game surge at Starfire
Relegated to Tukwila’s tiny sports complex and trailing 1-0 in its U.S. Open Cup semifinal match against Houston, the club kicked things into gear in the 89th minute for a last-second comeback. “And what’s crazy is that the 5,000 fans who were there almost put together as much energy as you’ll find at Qwest Field.”

 

3. The friendly clinics in ass-kickery
Gangel didn’t enjoy watching European heavyweights FC Barcelona and Chelsea FC whip up on the Sounders in exhibition matches, but she couldn’t deny that the foreigners had skills. “It just seemed like they always knew, two steps ahead, where they were going to go.”


4. Bombshells from the Beltway
After Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer questioned the legitimacy of the bid process that awarded DC United hosting duties for the U.S. Open Cup final, DC president Kevin Payne got pouty and thumbed his nose at Seattle and its fans in a full-page ad in the Washington Post. “He was like the scorned little brother,” Gangel says of Payne with a laugh. “ ‘You’re not as cool as you think you are. We’re cool, too!’ ”

 

SCARFIN’ IT UP

The first round is always on Jeff McIntyre and Erin O’Brien. Wise to the good will–generating power of free beer, the founders of SoDo-based RUFFNECK WEAR started stitching together a nationwide following for their soccer scarves in 2007 by dropping into fútbol-friendly bars across the country, buying PBRs for the regulars, and giving away their product. McIntyre had learned the scarf’s significance to soccer crazies from watching fans of Liverpool FC loft the cloth banners over their heads to salute their club. And he knew that the only thing those fans liked more than their scarves was booze. “We’ve got quite the reputation around MLS and USL and even some small college towns,” McIntyre says.

Teetotaling cynics might call that buying brand loyalty, but it worked. In late 2008, Adidas—which had the domestic soccer scarf market sewn up but needed a smaller, more nimble partner for one-off projects—caught a whiff of the suds-soaked Ruffneck buzz and asked McIntyre and O’Brien to whip up 23,000 special edition scarves for 2009 Sounders FC season ticket holders. (They’re producing another one for the Sounders’ first match of 2010, on March 25, but as of press time, the design was still under wraps.) And despite a dustup with the Sound-ers front office last summer—Ruffneck gave supporters blue-and-green scarves emblazoned with the popular soccer chant “Let’s Go Fucking Mental”—the Seattle upstarts inked a deal with Major League Soccer last November to produce licensed pieces for every team in the league. “We’re not hooligans, but we’re edgy,” McIntyre says. “And we do things that most other companies won’t do.”

Not bad for a pair of former Microsoft sales guys who admit they knew nothing about selling scarves before going out on their own. “Yeah, we’re businessmen, but I also DVR every single soccer game that’s on TV,” McIntyre says. “We’re just a couple of fun-loving guys who love the game.”

 

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HOW TO IDENTIFY—AND BE!—A HARDCORE FAN 

Hardcore Fans represent a specialized subspecies of the Sounders’ soccer-mad followers, unique in their fanatical devotion to the club. (They sing! A lot!) Common fans may aspire to achieve that distinction, but only by demonstrating the following five characteristics of Hardcore Fandom at all times. It’s a commitment that should not be taken lightly.  

Eating Habits
Frequent, lengthy trips to the concession stand thin the crowd and dampen noise production. Though not immune to the seductive powers of beer and nachos, the Hardcore Fan believes that a full section is vastly more important than a full belly. [Note: Halftime snack procurement is acceptable.]

Vocal Characteristics
In direct contrast to their fierce, sometimes aggressive demeanor, Hardcore Fans are also distinctive for their carefully orchestrated bouts of singing; an inability to carry a tune does not preclude admission to the chorus. Such outbursts must be delivered while standing and typically show support for the home team. They can, however, be employed to mock the opposing team. [See also: Territorial Instincts.]

Symbols of Affiliation
Homemade flags, banners, and various forms of signage [ also known as tifo, pronounced “TEE-fo” ] are commonly displayed in the stadium by the Hardcore Fan and may suggest a propensity for arts and crafts. These physical representations of support for the team are personal to the creator and can carry either humorous or proud messages—with varying degrees of scatological references. [Note: Per Qwest Field rules, only those formally identified as Hardcore Fans will be allowed to enter the stadium with flag poles longer than three and a half feet.]

Territorial Instincts
Opposing players and referees are unwelcome in the Hardcore Fan’s domain and are treated accordingly. Tactics for creating an environment hostile to rivals include taunting, derisive singing, and the brandishing of malicious tifo. [Note: These actions must be carried out in unison by large groups of Hardcore Fans for maximum effectiveness; rogue actions by single persons will be dismissed by opposing players as the ravings of common fans.]

Plumage
In deference to the team, which enjoys the highest position in the soccer pecking order, the Hardcore Fan shuns garish clothing and attention-seeking accessories (e.g., superhero costumes, face paint, mohawks). Jerseys are acceptable attire, but only as a demonstration of unity; excessive expressions of individuality that threaten to steal the spotlight from the team are anathema to the Hardcore Fan aesthetic.

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