SEATTLE -- Clint Dempsey walks into a bar.
An American bar. Soccer is on TV.
Really. No joke.
"I almost felt," he said, "like I was in another country."
As a visitor in June, the captain of the U.S. men's national soccer team was almost in another country. The U.S. selection was playing a World Cup qualifier in Seattle, which is technically in America, but participation is not mandatory. He was roaming downtown and noticed how many bars tuned their TVs to a Sounders game.
Two months later, he's no longer just an observer but a participant. In the most surprising news in soccer's summer, Dempsey signed with the Seattle Sounders, instantly becoming part of the sport's biggest U.S. success story in a city that zigs when others zag.
For the past 40 years, or so, soccer has been proclaimed by its adherents to be "the next big thing in American sports." Hasn't happened elsewhere yet. But in Seattle, the corner was turned five years ago with the debut of the Sounders in Major League Soccer. Now that neighboring Vancouver, B.C., and Portland, Ore., also have popular MLS teams, the three cities form the axis upon which North American pro soccer turns.
"In so many ways, alternative choices suit Seattle," said Gary Wright, a longtime Seattle sports executive who grew up in Southern California and is senior vice president of the Sounders. "This place is not afraid of embracing something different."
Seattle is the largest city in a state where smoking pot is legal, where same-sex marriage is legal and where twice as many fans go to a MLS game as go to a major league baseball game. Its NFL team, the Seahawks, practices yoga, frowns on swearing and yelling, listens to rap music at practice, eats free-range chicken raised specifically for its players and is among the favorites to win the Super Bowl in February.
Around the country, stories about Seattle and its unconventional sports tastes and turbulence -- in 2008 the town lost the NBA Sonics after 41 mostly successful years -- produce weapons-grade eye rolls. But skeptics are a minority in these parts, where Microsoft's world-headquarters campus has recreational soccer fields for its employees, not baseball fields. And where the name Clint Dempsey elicits squeals and bugged eyes the way LeBron James does elsewhere.
A long feature on the Seahawks' unusual team culture in the Sept. 2 issue of ESPN the Magazine leads with a quote from coach Pete Carroll, whose unconventional approach has NFL players lining up to play for him.
"It's different here," Carroll says. "Have you noticed?"
Futbol or football -- rampant cultural iconoclasm goes a ways to explain why there were 67,385 fans on hand Sunday night for a game. The heaving, chanting throng (the largest gathering for a soccer game in Northwest history and the second-biggest stand-alone crowd in MLS's 17-year existence) saw no friendly match between European giants like Manchester United and Barcelona.
Fans saw an ordinary MLS regular-season game between the Sounders and the Portland Timbers -- a decidedly unfriendly match that was more about elbows thrown and knees kicked than goals scored. The Sounders prevailed, 1-0. Appropriately enough, Seattle star Eddie Johnson headed in the goal on a free kick from Mauro Rosales after a yellow card on Timbers enforcer Pa Modu Kah, who had tackled Johnson from behind.
The eruption of emotion was equal parts elation and relief because up until that 60th minute, the Timbers outplayed the Sounders. Since the Timbers were ahead of the Sounders in MLS standings, the anxiety over falling further behind as well as blowing the Dempsey debut in front of a sellout crowd and on national cable TV was palpable -- and, worse, to Portland, or "Portscum," as Sounders fans refer to their neighbor.
In the soccer world, the Seattle-Portland rivalry isn't quite at the level of, say, Scotland's fevered Celtic-Rangers derby. But proximity in sports, as is the case around Europe and Latin America, breeds contempt. Timbers fans were sold 1,500 tickets for an upper-deck corner, where they were watched carefully for signs of ill temper and general foulness.
Before the match, thousands of fans gathered in nearby Pioneer Square for a club tradition, the march to the match. Led by the team's band, the alcohol-fueled rowdies, mostly young and mostly connected only through the exotic appeal of soccer, ambled through Seattle's oldest neighborhood chanting, singing and cursing at anyone wearing the opponent's colors. On Sunday some set off flares that produced colored smoke, offering an edgy, European-style game feeling to the early evening.
We're a global kind of city. We see the big picture.
"Most of these fans are diehards," said Tim, a marcher and a Bainbridge Island resident who will attend Western Washington University in the fall. "Football and baseball are dead."
The judgment is bit harsh when it comes to the Seahawks, but the Mariners earlier in the day drew only 22,999, close to the team's season average, to their MLB game next door at Safeco Field against the Los Angeles Angels.
It would be easy to say that the home-field debut Sunday of Dempsey, 30, the Texas-born star who left the English Premier League’s Tottenham while in the prime of his career three weeks ago to return -- for $20 million over four years -- to the second-tier MLS was the reason for the giant crowd. That would be wrong.
Even before the Dempsey-to-Seattle rumors rocked soccer's corner of the Internet, the presale for the Sounders-Timbers game surpassed 60,000. Nor was that a surprise. The last of three meetings between the clubs last year, on Oct. 7, drew 66,542 people. For Sunday, the Sounders brought in an extra 400 bleacher seats and sold standing-room tickets.
The presence of Dempsey certainly didn't hurt.
"The fan base went up insanely fast," said Gavin, a 16-year-old at Liberty High School in suburban Seattle. "It just rocketed. Friends of mine who never watched MLS because it wasn't good enough have totally changed their opinions now just because of one guy."
In their four years in MLS, the Sounders have led in attendance every season and are leading again in 2013. Their game average of more than 41,000 fans at CenturyLink's standard soccer configuration nearly doubles the average of the next-best-supported team, the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The Timbers game was the 80th consecutive sellout for the Sounders.
The Seahawks -- whose owner, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, has a minority stake in the Sounders and uses the club's front-office staff for both teams -- boast 85 sellouts in a row, and the 2013 season, starting in September, is sold out.
Sounders crowds are so anomalous in the United States, they can be compared only with the best of the European leagues. Seattle's average attendance would stand eighth in the EPL, fourth in Spain's La Liga, 12th in Germany’s Bundesliga and third in Italy's Serie A. The Sunday spectacle was the third-largest soccer crowd in the world for the week.
Roots of the ardor go back nearly 40 years to the defunct North American Soccer League, which Seattle, Portland and Vancouver joined as expansion franchises in the mid-1970s and which is where they really learned not to like one another. The wild-spending league collapsed in a heap of debt in 1984, but not before creating an indelible impression on a Seattle kid named Adrian Hanauer. Now he's a part-owner and the general manager of the Sounders and one of numerous regional keepers of the futbol flame.
"What's been a pleasant surprise is that my generation now has kids with links to a hip, younger crowd who weren't born when the [original] Sounders disbanded," he said. "We have this Seattle demographic that's deep into technology that also has fallen in love with the experience and sense of community that soccer generates."
The original Sounders marketed heavily to the robust youth-soccer crowd. This time, under Hanauer, the Sounders veered away and appealed to the market's many newly affluent domestic and international software engineers, programmers and Web designers -- geeky hipsters who can afford season tickets and longed for more than a digital connection. The Sounders have about 32,000 season-ticket holders, about four times as many as the Mariners.
"If you walk the halls of these tech companies," Hanauer said, "huge portions of the employee base are from another country. If you hear someone speak with an accent, 10 to 1 he or she is a soccer fan."
Back among the marchers, the international sentiment was shared.
"We're a global kind of city," said Devin, 27, smoking a cigarette outside Sluggers bar near the stadium. "We see the big picture."
Layer in a front office of staffers trained in the sophisticated machinery of the NFL, bring rivals from two cities three hours away by train, add alcohol, and mix in a giant stadium in the urban core instead of a suburban cul-de-sac where many MLS team find themselves, and -- voila! – it's Euroball, minus the hooligans.
In the long term, the Sounders have aspirations to be a world-class club, with resources and guts capable of making a Dempsey-like snatch from a top-tier international team annually. Short term, they had to dispatch a nettlesome rival Sunday. Before the game, Sigi Schmid, Sounders head coach since the team's MLS inception, worried that the local, national and some international attention to this rivalry game would be a distraction.
"We're not discouraging it, but we're not going to stand here and call them names and throw empty beer cans at their bus," Schmid said. "Other people will do that."
Division of labor and unity of purpose. It's what made America great. Or whatever this place is.
Art Thiel is a co-founder of sportspressnw.com