If you find yourself in search of reasons why the Seattle Sounders should continue scheduling midseason friendlies — many Sounders fans don’t see the logic in it, and it’s hard to blame them — take note of the gentleman in the West Ham United jersey seated just behind the team benches on Tuesday night at CenturyLink field.
West Ham, an English Premier League side, visited Seattle for their 2016-17 preseason opener, a trip that allowed Hammers fans in the States a chance to see their team up close.
Many claret-and-sky-blue jerseys dotted the seats, but one in particular stood out for a few reasons. The man behind the benches sported a No. 10 Paolo Di Canio shirt. Followers of international soccer might recall that the Italian-born Di Canio, a fine player and a member of West Ham from 1999 to 2003, was criticized throughout his career for several straight-arm, seemingly pro-fascist salutes while playing for Lazio in Rome, and in his autobiography described Italian dictator Benito Mussolini as “deeply misunderstood.” He also once received an 11-game ban for pushing a referee to the ground.
So, the sight of such a jersey — in Seattle, in the colors of an English club with the name of a controversial Italian player on the back — was a reminder of the sport’s global reach, and of the considerable history involved when the opponent hails from overseas.
Not something you see every day, certainly. As for the match itself? Aside from a pair of second-half goals scored by local product Jordan Morris in Seattle’s 3-0 victory — this was a friendly, so West Ham was quite liberal with its substitutions — there won’t be much to remember from this one.
Morris, though, offered a more optimistic viewpoint.
“I think every game you play, you learn how to come together more as a group,” he said after scoring in the 70th and 72nd minutes. “Especially when you’re struggling a little bit, to get a win in any context gives you a little confidence.”
The Sounders have matters far more pressing in the immediate future — crucial home matches against the L.A. Galaxy and FC Dallas in the coming week — and the atmosphere at CenturyLink on Tuesday reflected the relative indifference with which Sounders fans greeted this affair.
The Emerald City Supporters, for example, purchase 50 season tickets to sell to their members on a match-by-match basis. For Tuesday’s match, they chose to donate those 50 tickets to the Boys & Girls Clubs of King County. In a message posted to their website, ECS specified that the donation was “not a protest,” though the fan group says it is no secret that it does not support the practice of scheduling midseason friendlies. I would imagine that feeling is shared by many Sounders season-ticket holders who would prefer not to pay to watch an exhibition game.
(For what it’s worth, Portland Timbers owner and CEO Merritt Paulson tweeted two days ago that the Timbers “won’t play friendlies in season.”)
There does, however, seem to be at least some merit to the practice. I’m no soccer buff, but the news of West Ham’s appearance at CenturyLink still piqued my interest. The name does mean something, even to those who don’t follow the sport all that closely. West Ham — based in East London — brings with it a fair bit of history: The Hammers have been around since 1895, they’ve won three FA Cup championships, and though the past 30 years have been marked in part by frustration and inconsistency, they did finish seventh last season in the Premier League standings. Put simply: it was pretty cool to see them play in Seattle, and it’s cool that Sounders players get to match up against those from the EPL.
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said there’s no telling whether a victory like this, friendly or not, might serve as a turning point for his struggling squad.
“When we looked at our July, we weren’t thrilled that this game was going to go in there,” Schmid said. “Now that you’ve won the game, you say ‘Oh, it was a great idea, it’s fantastic and it helped our confidence.’ And sometimes there’s moments that turn a season and it’s tough to predict what those moments are going to be. Maybe a moment was the penalty kick shootout in Salt Lake, maybe winning this game and everybody’s boosted a little bit, and that can become a catalyst for what we’re trying to do in league.”
That said, this wasn’t nearly the spectacle created by Seattle’s 2011 friendly against Manchester United, which drew a crowd of 67,052, the largest ever to witness a soccer match in the Pacific Northwest. And of Seattle’s 10 international friendlies since joining MLS in 2009, this one likely incited the least excitement among those who wear rave green — attendance was announced as 38,385, with the stadium set up in standard Sounders capacity. It was mostly full, though empty seats weren’t difficult to find.
It didn’t help that West Ham’s star player, 29-year-old midfielder Dimitri Payet, is away playing for France in Euro 2016, or that Sounders star Clint Dempsey sat this one out to rest, or that Sounders defenders Brad Evans and Chad Marshall each sat out with minor injuries.
So maybe it’s best to appreciate Tuesday’s match for what it was: a mostly meaningless 90 minutes of soccer highlighted by the increased presence of international flavor at CenturyLink field, and perhaps a confidence boost for the home team.
Sounders fans, however, may be forgiven for sitting this one out.