With or withoutDavid Beckham, MLS is alive and well—even thriving in some places. Nowhere isthat more evident than in Seattle, where the expansion Sounders FC have joinedMLS as the league's 15th franchise. Sounders games are loud—really loud. Fanspack Qwest Field, with sold-out crowds approaching 30,000. (Only the lower bowlof the stadium is opened for MLS games.) More than 75% of the spectators areseason-ticket holders. Virtually everyone in the stands waves a team scarfabove his head and chants for the entire 90 minutes, cheering oninternationally accomplished players such as former Arsenal star FreddieLjungberg of Sweden and goalkeeper Kasey Keller, a veteran of four U.S. WorldCup teams.
"This is theway it's supposed to feel," says coach Sigi Schmid, a German native andtwo-time MLS Cup winner with the L.A. Galaxy and the Columbus Crew. "Thisis the way it is when you go to a game in Europe."
MLS's new crownjewel—which was 4-2-0 at week's end—has many factors working in its favor, notthe least of which are deep-pocketed owners with a global vision. The groupincludes majority owner Joe Roth, a successful Hollywood producer; comedian andnoted soccer freak Drew Carey; and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who also hasa large stake in the NFL's Seahawks. That connection can't be understated: TheSeahawks and the Sounders share office facilities, sales and marketing staff, astadium—even a blue-and-green color scheme.
Seattle has beena hotbed for soccer dating to at least the 1970s and '80s, when the NASL teamknown as the Sounders routinely attracted crowds of 20,000. Youth participationin the state of Washington is among the highest in the country. Seattle wasmentioned as a target for MLS expansion as far back as 1996, when the leaguebegan play.
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But the return ofpro soccer to the Emerald City couldn't have been better timed. The Sonics'move to Oklahoma City last year left Seattle without an NBA team after 41seasons. Says Sounders minority owner and Seattle-area native Adrian Hanauer,"People had an emotional part of their beings ripped out of their hearts,and I think they were looking for something to embrace." With a pair ofnatural geographic rivals—Portland and Vancouver—scheduled to join MLS in 2011,fans in Seattle aren't likely to let go of that embrace anytime soon.
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For Jonah Freedman's Q&A with Sounders goalie Kasey Keller, go toSI.com/bonus
For U.S. footballers who have played abroad, returninghome to join MLS can be a feel-good experience, but it's still a comedown. Witha league-high five goals while playing for his hometown Chicago Fire, BrianMcBride (below) is thriving, but his $360,000 salary is far less than the sevenfigures he earned while playing for Fulham FC of the English Premier League."The better the Americans can do when they come home from Europe, hopefullythe more respect they'll have, [and get paid] what they deserve," saysSounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller, one of five prominent contributors from the2006 World Cup team who recently rejoined MLS after a successful careeroverseas. In a league with a salary cap of $2.3 million per team, that's askinga lot.