A longtime Sounders fan, Doug Dragovich sat at the bar with a beer in Swannie’s next to Occidental Park Saturday afternoon, awaiting the March to the Match. He was fully aware that Seattle was the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis gripping the U.S., so much so that instead of taking the train from Shoreline, as he usually does, he drove with two friends to Pioneer Square. Germs, y’know?
He even pointed out that he had two of the major risk factors — over age 60 and previous medical conditions (two heart attacks).
So Doug, what the hell are you doing here, in a bar in a crowd at a sports event?
“What’s that song they sing at games?” he said with a glint in his eye as he took a sip. He paused while a reporter puzzled through a playlist, then smiled.
“Sounders ‘Til I Die,” he said.
Dragovich will be performing at Swannie’s all week, folks. Don’t forget to tip the wait staff.
At the outset of what appears to a grim global saga of multiple indeterminate outcomes and conclusions, Dragovich spoke for the fatalists. Presumably, that would be many, if not most, of those who showed up at the Clink for a match against Columbus, a 1-1 tie.
The people who were not fatalists, well, they weren’t around to be interviewed.
The result of the early season match was of some import to to players and fans. But the larger curiosity was how many would show for the first major-league sports event played in Seattle since the news broke that a nursing home in Kirkland had multiple cases of COVID-19. As of Saturday morning, 102 cases had been confirmed statewide, with 16 deaths.
The official crowd count of 33,080 was the smallest since the Sounders’ inaugural season of 2009, and about 7,000 less than the season opener the previous Sunday, when the celebration of the 2019 MLS championship was part of the attraction. The in-house count looked smaller, presumably because some of the season-ticket holders didn’t find takers for seats they declined to use.
Some attendees were like Christian Linares, a father of two who lives in the Northshore School District that shut down this week. A season-ticket holder, Linares saw a chance to get his stir-crazy kids out of the house.
“The thought is scary,” he said as his kids ran around in the children’s park. “But my sister came in from Ohio and she’s never seen the Sounders. The risk seems low enough, and we all love soccer, so it seems worth it.”
The march, however, had less than 200 participants, “smallest I’ve ever seen,” said a fire-department officer who’s worked the assignment for several years.
At Quality Athletics, the bar on the ground floor of the apartment tower next to the stadium’s north lot, bartender Josh Wallace, a big soccer fan, was leaving his post early. Pre-game, the joint usually is a madhouse, with a line out the door. This time, plenty of seats were available.
“This is as slow as we’ve ever seen it” for a Sounders game, he said. “Normally I can’t leave before 7:30. This time, I’ll be early.”
By the start, the lower bowl was mostly filled, the crowd was its usual rowdy self, and all seemed relatively normal. Which came as a great relief to Sounders management, who had been laboring for weeks behind the scenes with a task force to plot a course through news cycles that brought increasingly disturbing and sometimes conflicting accounts.
“It was an extraordinary week,” Peter Tomozawa, president of business operations, told a post-game press conference. “It was anything but normal. We spent an incredible amount of time thinking through all the issues of hosting a game, the permutations and combinations of what might happen, with one thought — public safety.
“We recognize the responsibility that we have to the community. People are looking at us and how we behave here in Seattle. We didn’t we didn’t know how many people were gonna show up tonight. So, hopefully, this comes out as a safe and and good event for everybody concerned. That will be a positive step forward.”
They pulled it off. But of course, the larger consequences don’t register on the scoreboard. No one can know for weeks, if then, whether the crowd advanced the spread of COVID-19. A more dire case is playing out in Italy, where the federal government has ordered a shutdown of the country’s northern region, which already had been playing soccer matches without spectators.
No sports or civic official has publicly advanced an empty stadium option in Seattle or nationally. But as everyone around the Sounders was saying, things change daily.
“You know, it sucks that we can’t have as many fans at the game, but in the end, we understand that everybody’s got to be safe in there,” said the Sounders’ Cristian Roldan. Of the empty-stadium option, he said, “It would take out our advantage. Having 40,000 fans here every week gives us an extra push. But it’s understandable, if it comes from a government standpoint.
“It would be a massive blow, because we love our fans and we want them to be here. But we have to take the most cautious way of living.”
Gustav Svensson, who returned to he starting lineup after missing several weeks with a calf injury, had perhaps the evening’s most trenchant observation.
“In reality, what we’re doing is more of a hobby for everybody,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to have it as a job. We understand that safety comes first.”
As hospitals fill, the federal government dithers, businesses close, industries slow and the stock market plunges, the notion grows of putting aside for awhile our national hobby.
Then again, so few things these days make us as happy.