The Next Big Game in Major League Soccer

Clint Dempsey at BMO field in Toronto on Aug 10, 2013. Credit: Nick Turchiaro -

By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 23, 2013) US Soccer Players - Sunday isn’t about Clint Dempsey, the returning American star whose surprising signing this summer caused controversy and excitement in Seattle and beyond. Though Dempsey will be making his home debut in a Sounders jersey in front of 66,500-plus fans at Century Link Field, his presence isn’t what drove the sellout.

Though Dempsey is the highest paid American player in the history of MLS, a potentially transformative signing that could have large ramifications on how the richest MLS teams operate, he’s not actually the headliner. Sounders fans are understandably excited to see the USMNT captain don their colors, Dempsey is just one of the twenty-two players that will take the field on Sunday to play part in a game that mean so much on so many levels.

Sunday is about the Sounders playing in the latest edition of their most vibrant and intense rivalry. The Portland Timbers are coming to town, hence the big crowd expected to be on hand.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Sounders find themselves behind their Cascadia rivals in the standings, a fact that adds more juice to a game that would be the most intense in MLS even if the both sides were well out of the playoff race. The addition of Dempsey to the Seattle lineup makes them a stronger team on paper, but with the way things have gone this season, the pressure is on to perform.

The building will buzzing, the assembled masses fully expecting a Sounders victory. The game is the story. Yet, as with all things MLS, there’s a tendency towards the grandiose when these moments happen.

66,500 fans in one stadium to watch a soccer game between two American teams is rare enough that it sets imaginations running. What does it mean, exactly? What far-reaching conclusion can we draw from it? Does Dempsey’s part in this melodrama, whether it might have happened without him or not, say something about Major League Soccer’s growth? If that many people purchasing tickets to watch a soccer match in the modern age of American soccer doesn’t speak to something fundamental about the progression of this league in this moment, have we already crossed a symbolic threshold?

At some point, MLS will run out of milestones. That day may be quite a way off, but the truth is that Sunday’s game in Seattle isn’t really much of one. Attendance will be larger than for the typical Sounders match, but that’s simply a matter of degree. The Sounders drew near-sellout for a home match against the Timbers last season, and may very well find a way to maximize CenturyLink Field more often in the future. It’s a spectacle we’ve seen before.

That doesn’t make it any less impressive, but it does mean we should stop looking for the larger meaning. Seattle is Seattle, a “big” club in an MLS context, putting butts in the seats on an order of magnitude unimaginable anywhere else. The Sounders success reflects upon MLS, but only as an exception in a league that is still working out what it wants to be when it grows up. If anything, the size of Seattle’s crowds, and especially those for Timbers matches, reinforces the reality that Major League Soccer is a supremely uneven sports product. It’s just as valid to see the Sounders attendance numbers – which provide great atmosphere and an exciting TV backdrop on par with the biggest American sports – as a reminder that MLS in not a monolith. “Single-entity” is a business model, not the prism through which to view a sports league’s success. All for one, but not necessarily one for all.

A league of teams drawing like Seattle is not possible. Still, if we able to trade the crowd of nearly 66,500 (or Seattle’s average of around 40,000) for across the board sellouts, significantly higher TV ratings, or full mainstream acceptance of MLS we’d be fools not to do it.

Dempsey’s arrival in Seattle was a surprise and there are many reasons to see an American with top years left returning to the US as a positive. Again though, until there are others of a similar station following in his footsteps, the US National Team captain joining MLS is more indicative of Seattle’s aspirational outlook than a sea change for the league. Perhaps history of a type will be made when Dempsey takes the field on Sunday, but as he’s already made two appearances in a Sounders jersey, that history is more notable in the context of his new club than anything broader.

Sunday is about the Sounders and Timbers reviving a rivalry worth watching, in front of the type of large crowd we’ve come to expect from Seattle. It’s a soccer match, one of the league’s most intriguing, pitting two good teams against one another. This time around, it comes with the added element of being important in the standings, with crucial points on the line. Clint Dempsey will be there, but so will Obafemi Martins (if injury doesn’t keep him out), Eddie Johnson, Mauro Rosales, Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe, and a host of other talented players that better speak to Major League Soccer’s progress than one big signing in a league operating on such distinct salary levels.

It’s a big MLS game, the type MLS needs many more of, but which doesn’t have to be lifted to the level of milestone. And really, that’s more than enough.

Jason Davis is the founder of and the co-host of The Best Soccer Show. Contact Follow him on Twitter:

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2 Responses to The Next Big Game in Major League Soccer

  1. Charles says:

    Why do you say “A league of teams drawing like Seattle is not possible.” ??

    I absolutely disagree. First of all there is a league drawing 70k per game for every team, it is called NFL. More games in a season for MLS, but only needing to draw 40k per game ? Definitely, I would be shocked it it didn’t happen.

    Shocked that it hasn’t already happened. Inferiority complex like thinking it can never happen, is probably the biggest reason.

  2. Pepe says:

    Bundesliga has the highest attendance of any soccer league, and it only averages 43k (Dortmund averages 80k on the high end, while the lowest team average is 17k)
    link to

    So expecting MLS to average 40k is aiming high indeed.