As part of the 50th Anniversary of Washington Youth Soccer, we revisit some of the landmark moments that have led Washington and the Pacific Northwest to become the 'Soccer Capital' of the U.S.
Written by Frank MacDonald
Statewide Soccer Community Ensures Passage of 1997 Stadium Initiative
On any given Saturday or Sunday, we are strewn about the state: watching, playing or parenting. We are Washington’s soccer community.
For years and years we were scattered about on playfields and rare was the occasion when circumstances brought more than a couple thousand of us together, and this is the story of when we united to make a lot of dreams come true and, in part, trigger the game’s explosive growth across the continent.
Twenty years ago our landscape for sports was much different than today. The Seahawks were on the verge of leaving Seattle and the largest crowd for a soccer game was a few thousand for a league final at Memorial Stadium.
On Feb. 2, 1996, moving trucks pulled into the Kirkland headquarters of the Seahawks and began loading up for relocation to Anaheim. That shocking news resulted in a whirlwind of reactions, and eventually an offer from Paul Allen to buy the NFL team and keep it here. There was one condition: a new stadium to replace the outdated Kingdome.
A statewide referendum would determine whether $300 million in public money would be put toward the stadium. Just weeks prior to the June 17, 1997, vote, polls showed only 38 percent in favor.
However, when the final ballots were tallied, it was evident a major shift had taken place, with the financing package for now-CenturyLink Field backed by 51 percent of the electorate.
Then-Sounders captain Bernie James was congratulating Allen on the outcome when an aide noted, in timely fashion, “These soccer guys put it over the top.”
It was proof that the power of the people, the soccer people, when properly harnessed, can move the earth. Six years after that vote, a throng of 66,722 greeted Manchester United and Celtic on a warm summer night, the first of many, many huge crowds confirming our deep-seated adoration for the game.
Once regarded by outsiders as an outback, Washington is now widely recognized as the epicenter of soccer in America. Each time a Sounders FC or international date draws 40,000-plus to Seattle, television and internet audiences worldwide are reminded that this place is indeed special.
Stadium Key to Soccer’s Future
“There is no question the soccer vote was the difference,” said Fred Mendoza, then a youth soccer coach but, more importantly, a liaison between Allen’s group and the state’s grassroots soccer community.
In the beginning, Allen’s campaign was built around saving the Seahawks. Mendoza was among those soccer leaders who believed an alliance would prove mutually beneficial.
Pam Copple, then outgoing Washington Youth Soccer president, pledged support of the campaign, now officially a soccer/football stadium. She, Mendoza and Seattle Pacific University men’s coach Cliff McCrath had been involved in Seattle’s initial bid for an MLS team, from 1993-96.
When MLS bypassed the city for a lack of suitable stadium, Mendoza kept exploring possibilities. “We looked at virtually every plot of land or existing facility to see if it could accommodate a soccer specific stadium,” he said.
Mobilizing the Masses
Allen warmly welcomed the soccer folks to the fold, and soon Mendoza and McCrath were enlisted, campaigning side-by-side across the state with Seahawks and Sea Gals. Their stump speeches and the notion of creating a world-class venue resonated with many. After all, earlier efforts to secure games for the 1994 World Cup, 1999 Women’s World Cup and a charter MLS franchise all stalled because of facility issues.
At the time of the election, it was estimated 505,000 people played soccer in Washington. That factored to one out of every 11 residents.
Not everyone was on board. There were dissenters, even haters, said Copple, who remembered being berated by late-night callers to her home.
“I loved the Kingdome,” said Copple, “but when the (ceiling) tiles are falling, it’s time for something to happen. Our players deserve it, our coaches deserve it and our parents deserve it.”
Still, the dream of a stadium to celebrate the game, to lure not only an MLS club but also teams from around the world–that captured the imagination of many. A generation of fans who flocked to the Kingdome to see the original Sounders now saw a path toward renewing that tradition with their children.
“It truly was the soccer moms and dads that created the narrowest of margins,” Mendoza contended. Out of 1.6 million votes cast, the difference was a mere 36,535. “For me personally, it was a dream come true.”
Crowds Quickly Drawn
It would be five years before Washington’s Soccer Nation could truly celebrate together. In 2002 the first event in the newly-completed then-Seahawks stadium was a Sounders-Vancouver match. It attracted a league record 25,515. Big-time international matches followed, and five years later, in 2007, an MLS team was secured.
Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer acknowledged that the arrival of Sounders FC would not have been possible without the efforts of leaders like Mendoza, McCrath, Copple and others–and the votes of thousands from the soccer family.
Said Hanauer: “There are so many people who should feel proud of being the foundation upon which we build (the Sounders). And there will be many more to come in the future as well.”
The following cartoon was published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer leading up to the Stadium Initiative vote in 1997: