One of the enduring problems that the North American Soccer League has given us is franchises that were established draws over multiple seasons that suddenly fell apart. People tend to lump all the teams that didn’t make it to the final season in 1984 as somehow unable to connect with their communities. Though there are too many examples where this is the case, there are also several markets that proved they were more than capable of supporting professional soccer like Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.
The Seattle Sounders joined the NASL as an expansion franchise in 1974. At the time, the league was already setting itself up for a push, though the Pele-fueled interest was probably surprising to even the most convinced American soccer booster.
Seattle was an emerging pro sports market, even after they lost their baseball expansion team to bankruptcy and relocation after a single season. The National Basketball Association had already established a good rivalry between the Seattle Supersonics and the Portland Trailblazers, the NHL had the Canucks in Vancouver, the NFL with the expansion Seattle Seahawks in 1976, and in 1977 Major League Baseball tried again with the Seattle Mariners.
For all of these leagues the Pacific Northwest was considered a logistical problem due to the relative distances and increased travel costs. Though Vancouver had a team for the only season of the National Professional Soccer League that merged to form the NASL after the 1967 season and another for the first year of the NASL, it would take a third franchise to finally stick. Given the travel issues, it made sense to expand into the region as a group, with the Sounders and the Vancouver Whitecaps starting in ’74 and Portland joining a year later.
1974 was the first major expansion for the North American Soccer League after it fell from 16 teams the year after the 1968 merger. The rebuilding was slow and uncertain, attempting to establish stable markets as well as getting into the major media cities. Expansion wasn’t a sure thing, coming right after two teams, Atlanta and Montreal, dropped out of the league at the end of the 1973 season. The new clubs were meant to re-establish the league on the West Coast, with four of the eight cities in the Pacific Time Zone. The league now stood at 15 teams, more than at any time since the merger in 1968.
The Sounders started in Memorial Stadium, building the playing squad around former English League talent like Geoff Hurst and Harry Redknapp. The squad was strong, and by their third year they were falling just short of a championship, losing to the Cosmos in the Soccer Bowl. By that point the club was playing in the Kingdome and had local competition in Portland.
Seattle stabilized under strong local ownership during the soccer boom of the late 1970’s with one of the league’s highest attendance averages and several strong showings in the Transatlantic Cup. Beating European clubs and the English players on the squad gave the Sounders a reputation in Europe. In the NASL, Roger Davies was named MVP in 1980 and Peter Ward won the award in ’82. That year the Sounders returned to the Soccer Bowl, again facing the Cosmos and losing.
After the ’82 success, the club was sold to a group headed by former National Football League player Bruce Anderson. By the end of the ’83 season, the club had lost a million dollars and the new owners were looking for buyers. Without financial backing, the club went under at the end of the 1983 season.
That wasn’t the end of the Sounders in Seattle. As U.S. international Chris Henderson recently told USSoccerPlayers, “many of the Sounders players of the NASL have stayed in town and are coaching youth soccer. I think that is why Washington continues to put players in the pros.”