SEATTLE — The stage is yours, Seattle.
A city renowned for its soccer support, having set MLS attendance records each of the past four years, having drawn crowds comparable to those in the top leagues of Europe, will finally host the U.S. men’s national team in a FIFA World Cup qualifier.
It is an honor not bestowed here since 1976, and the long wait ends Tuesday with a 7 p.m. game against Panama at CenturyLink Field.
The U.S. stars, with professional experience across the vast soccer world, are well aware of Seattle’s reputation.
“It’s been incredible what this city has done,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “I have family here who are season-ticket holders for the Sounders. ... It’s an awesome soccer city, so to have a qualifier here is exciting for all of us.”
Players and coaches got a taste of that community support as spectators Saturday, when the Sounders hosted rival Vancouver in front of 53,679 fans.
U.S. captain Clint Dempsey couldn’t believe how many people were invested in the game. When he walked past bars and restaurants that evening, everyone, it seemed, was watching.
“I almost felt like I was in another country,” Dempsey said.
So high is the standard here that ticket sales of around 36,000 as of Monday were perceived by some as lagging, particularly after the huge crowd over the weekend.
Maybe it’s fair criticism. Maybe Seattle has become a victim of its own success in that regard. But attendance could still break into the top 10 largest crowds in U.S. Soccer history for a home qualifier. A crowd of 36,000 would still rank in the top three since 2002.
Sounders FC’s Brad Evans, a U.S. defender, came to the defense of his MLS fan base.
“If we were getting 15,000 every (Sounders) game and now getting 34,000 for a national game, we would be singing in a different tune,” said Evans, who is expected to start against Panama. “But the fact that we get 55,000 (Saturday) and . . . only’ 35,000 at a game on Tuesday night ... I think we’re doing OK.”
If U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was disappointed, it wasn’t noticeable, as he called the local fans some of the best in the country.
“The atmosphere is always tremendous here in Seattle ... and we want to enjoy that,” Klinsmann said. “We kind of wanted it badly.”
So why hasn’t the U.S. come here more often? There are a couple unavoidable realities that make a Seattle trip difficult.
Location is one, especially while European leagues are in season. The travel across nine time zones isn’t ideal for Europe-based players before major international games. Even a charter flight from Jamaica, where the U.S. played a road qualifier Friday, took almost 10 hours.
The other major issue is the field. CenturyLink has artificial turf, a taboo surface when it comes to big games. Temporary grass has been installed at the stadium for Tuesday, but that is a far-from-perfect solution.
“Seattle certainly deserves a game,” midfielder Michael Bradley said, “but I think the field, unfortunately, leaves a lot to be desired.”
On Saturday, Whitecaps goalkeeper Brad Knighton called the field “ridiculously terrible.”
The hope is that the fans, with unique support other cities can’t match, will make up for those challenges.
And Tuesday’s crowd could be a determining factor as to whether important U.S. soccer games in Seattle will become more regular or require another 37-year wait.