A minor sports milestone in Seattle was passed Friday night — almost 16,000 people showed in person up to watch major league sports.
The “crowd” was spread across two venues — the Mariners hosted the Houston Astros at T-ball Park, across the street from the Loo, where the Sounders opened their regular season against Minnesota United.
In The Before Times, simultaneous starts weren’t allowed. Now, on a warm spring night with the covid lid being pried open a bit, it was a Fourth of July-level achievement.
In either venue, small numbers in big yards seemed meager. But they beat the hell out of zero.
The crawl back toward whatever normalcy shall be, was welcomed.
What wasn’t normal at the Loo was the most lopsided opening win in Sounders history — 4-0 over Minnesota United. Accompanied by shouts, ovations and well-spaced giddiness. The defending Western Conference champs and their fans were all about statements of return.
“I thought it was awesome,” said coach Brian Schmetzer, and he was talking about the 7,024 fans, the first since 33,000 attended the March 7, 2020 match, shortly after which the world changed. “I loved it for many different reasons. I thought everybody was being safe. The club worked hard with all the governmental agencies.
“Hopefully by the end of the year we’ll be out of this, and 40,000 people . . . 7,000 or 70,000, it was great to have fans back the building.”
Just as noteworthy was the nature of the victory — “all of the goals were very, very high quality,” Schmetzer said — and where the club had been, where it is now and where it has to go.
For a team that has reached the MLS pinnacle in four of the past five years — two wins and two losses in the MLS Cup — the only acceptable destination is the playoffs, which they have reached every year of their MLS existence.
But the title game loss in December to Columbus was so dispiriting — a 3-0 naked fall down the stairs — that it seemed to shake the franchise standard.
Indeed, there was a makeover. Let go to other employers were staples Gustav Svensson, Kelvin Leerdam, Joevin Jones and Roman Torres. Out due to knee surgery, perhaps for the season, is star forward Jordan Morris. Missing Friday was another key player, Nico Lodeiro, out with an unspecified injury, but expected back soon.
So many new players forced Schmetzer into a new formation, a five-midfielder set with two attackers. It looked every bit the boot camp trial in a scoreless first half.
Then in the 49th minute, Joao Paulo unleashed ordnance.
From several yards above the area, he cradled a Loons header clearance with his right foot and reflexively volleyed a strike that needed the exit-velocity speedometer from the shop next door to convey its impact into the back the net.
Or you can take Schmetzer’s description: “Oh. My. God.”
WHAT. A. HIT. pic.twitter.com/5j7F51N6aI
— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) April 17, 2021
The season’s first score lit a fire. In the 70th minute, Raul Ruidiaz scored on a slick assist from Will Bruin, and did it again three minutes later, this time from Cristian Roldan. In the 86th minute, the scoring closed with a sentimental flourish.
The man who in 2009 scored the first goal in MLS Sounders history, Fredy Montero, came off the bench, and at 33, did what he still does best, the assist going to Alex Roldan.
“I do have a soft spot in my heart for Fredy,” Schmetzer said. “Seeing him score that goal, that was a just reward for his coming back to Seattle, working hard in preseason. When Fredy comes on, you saw the quality that he has.
“That one, just with a little bit of reminiscing about how he scored the first goal for this franchise in MLS history, that was probably my favorite.”
The Loons, 0-7-1 all-time vs. Seattle, were embarrassed nearly as much Friday as in the Western Conference championship meeting in November, when the Sounders overcame a 2-0 lead with three goals in the final 15 minutes, one of the greatest comebacks in Seattle sports history.
Now the Sounders put on them their best opening-game whuppin’. Bad matchup.
Obviously the remaining 33 regular-season games can’t all go as well. But it does say something about the pride of purpose the Sounders have developed over the years that, despite setbacks and changes, they remain a perennial championship threat from the git-go.
“It’s just embedded in the club, from the coaches down to the players,” defender Brad Smith said in a preseason video conference. “It’s not something that you really talk about. You just come in and be a professional, do what we’re told to do and work hard. And that shows in how many postseasons we’ve been to in a row.
“It’s keeping the mentality of the club, keep pushing forward and keep trying to maintain success.”
Get your vaccinations, folks. You may want to see for yourself.