In early 2017, Gustav Svensson stumbled off a long flight from China, so jet-lagged he barely remembers his ride from Sea-Tac to the Seattle Sounders training facility. The team’s newest member had played in his native Sweden, then Turkey, Ukraine, and finally Guangzhou, before a transfer landed the 30-year-old midfielder in Seattle. Once his fog lifted, he felt at home. “I was pleasantly surprised,” he recalls, remembering the calm surrounds; Svensson’s last gig in a city of 15 million had meant navigating the crush of giant crowds in every elevator and metro train. “I felt a different vibe in Seattle.”
Fresh off a 2019 MLS Cup victory, the Sounders opened this season with a squad that was half international. The 24-man roster represented 13 nationalities, including players from Peru, Cameroon, and Trinidad and Tobago. The transition to a midsize American city isn’t always easy, says four-year veteran Cristian Roldan. “I don’t think some of these players have ever seen what Thai food is, or teriyaki,” he says. The life of a professional soccer star can mean a new country every year, with no time for culture shock.
There’s little language barrier on the field; most fútbol lifers have learned at least some English and Spanish phrases during their careers. “You communicate by making noises, with body language,” says Svensson. The Sounders organization employs translators when needed, like the local schoolteacher who aided South Korean Kim Kee-hee last year.
Off-pitch the bilingual Roldan, drafted out of the University of Washington, serves as informal welcome wagon for South and Central American teammates. “The first thing I ask them is, ‘Do you have a family? Are they coming here?’” he says. He directs those with kids toward slower-paced Eastside neighborhoods and shares his favorite parts of Northwest life, like Tacos Chukis and golf.
Uruguayan Nicolás Lodeiro remembers his first real outing in Seattle, a visit to the Space Needle with his family. The long elevator ride to the top, the chance to look out on their new city with his son, felt special. A star for two MLS Cup runs, Lodeiro is known for his backyard grilling—“every player wants to come eat barbecue when I make something like steak,” he says—and can’t remember a time he’s been criticized for his developing English. “People help me along while I try. It’s very funny.”
Seattle might be far from Lodeiro’s hometown of Nuevo Paysandú or Svensson’s Gothenburg, but perhaps only newbies can appreciate how international our city has become. When Svensson walked into the National Nordic Museum in Ballard, he was shocked to see a children’s show he’d watched during his youth as part of an exhibit, celebrated as art a world away. “I would say that there’s a good reason this is my fourth year in Seattle,” he says. “There’s a lot of different cultures. It feels a lot like home.”