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Thursday, January 22, 2009
Splashy Sounders set to kick off in Seattle

RENTON, Wash. -- The splashy new Seattle Sounders are still two months from their first game. Yet they already have sold far more season tickets than Major League Soccer averaged in attendance last season.

They have the millions of Hollywood filmmaker Joe Roth, team co-owner and actor Drew Carey, and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen. Disney is a team sponsor, too. All that cash pried one of MLS' most-accomplished coaches, Sigi Schmid, away from the league champions and persuaded Swedish national star midfielder Freddie Ljungberg to come from England's Premier League to this relatively modest soccer league in the United States.

And they have a partnership with the Northwest's pre-eminent sports franchise, the Seahawks of the mighty NFL.

The only thing missing from all this buzz is David Beckham.

"It doesn't look like an expansion team," Roth said Wednesday, smiling like a proud father after watching his team practice for the first time through a cold fog on the practice field of the Seahawks.

The NFL team is partnering with Sounders FC through the minority stake in the soccer franchise held by Allen's Vulcan Inc., a management company that invests in science, the arts and movie production, and also runs the Seahawks.

So it fits that the MLS' 15th and newest team has brought an NFL-like excitement to a region starved for a championship sports team.

Roth said the Sounders will turn a profit in 2009, no small feat in the current economy. They have sold 18,600 season tickets. Even if no one else buys a seat, Seattle will be better than 11 of the league's 14 other teams were last season at attracting fans.

The Sounders are the first MLS team to have an agreement for all games to be broadcast on free, over-the-air television. Microsoft is paying $20 million, according to The Wall Street Journal, to have its Xbox 360 Live brand prominently displayed on Sounders jerseys for five years. Microsoft spokesman Lou Gellos said the company has not disclosed the amount but confirmed this was its first sponsorship of a pro sports team.

This is far beyond what the second-tier MLS is used to. While teams in New England, Kansas City and New York -- until the Red Bulls move out of Giants Stadium and into their own place -- share stadiums with NFL teams, Seattle is more intricately partnered with the behemoth of American sports.

The Seahawks, with their regional might and rich resources, have provided at least the appearance that the Sounders are in the race with pro football and baseball's Mariners for the Northwest's pro sports attention and fans' money.

"Well, I hope so. That was my idea," Roth said.

"Once a week, I wake up and say to myself, 'What would I have done without the Seahawks?' There's no way we would be where we are right now without them."

Roth was standing in the hallway of the Seahawks' luxurious new headquarters, built for $60 million. His Sounders are using the complex for part of training camp before they leave for Oxnard, Calif., and then Argentina next month. They will begin play March 19 on national television inside Qwest Field, the Seahawks' opulent stadium that Sounders FC is using rent-free.

It's all because Roth is friends with Tim Leiweke, a Los Angeles-based president of sports and entertainment company AEG and brother of Seahawks chief executive Tod Leiweke. When MLS commissioner Don Garber pointed Roth toward Seattle to start an expansion team, Roth sought out Tod Leiweke and a partnership with his Seahawks.

Brian Schmetzer looks around and just shakes his head.

The assistant coach for Sounders FC was the coach of the previous Sounders, from the second-level United Soccer League. He and Sounders FC general manager Adrian Hanauer used to drag players into a rundown stadium in downtown Seattle.

"How big is the difference? How big is this building?" Schmetzer said inside the Seahawks' 225,000-square-foot headquarters. "In 2002, we were at Memorial Stadium, a dilapidated high-school football stadium with rotten turf. Now in 2009 we're among Seahawks people, Microsoft people."

Midfielder Brad Evans, who won the MLS title with Schmid and the Columbus Crew in November, is a believer. He walked off the practice field marveling.

"Sigi, man, everything so far has just been so different, so good," Evans told his coach.

"It's definitely the best situation I have been in," said Schmid, who ranks second in MLS victories (113) behind Bob Bradley, the current coach of the U.S. national team.

"We need to pay these people back as soon as possible. And the way you pay people back, the fans, and the owners and everybody else, is by getting wins."

But the roster is a mix of unproven players and fading stars like the 31-year-old Ljungberg, who is out perhaps through the opener following hip surgery, and 39-year-old goalkeeper Kasey Keller. Keller, of Lacey, Wash., said he returned from 17 years playing in Europe to retire at home.

Yet Roth is aiming high, toward the playoffs.

"The trick is to play well enough and make it entertaining enough that we end up holding those fans," he said.




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