Notes from the press box

So during the Earthquakes-Sounders match I had the chance to sit in the press box. Thanks to my writings for American Soccer News, I get a press pass, even though the presence of a college student draws some funny looks and remarks of "are you sure you're in the right place?" The press experience was new for me, as it probably would be for most of you. So here's a few interesting things I noted.

- I had to wait 10 minutes for them to make enough phone calls to get me my proper credentials. At the end of this process, I was told that a Sounders PR person (who will go unnamed) wanted to meet me. Well, really, he/she just wanted to express their annoyance with me. And after that, I accidentally sat in the seat of some KOMO reporter but figured it out just in time. All in all, it was an inauspicious start to my press career.

- The press box is surprisingly big - it wasn't close to full, and there were 75 to 90 people in it.

- The back of the press pass specifically says "No autographs allowed during media access periods." Damn.

- There's a press box announcer for official scoring, and he mispronounced Jaqua as 'jack-wa.' Seriously? It's been four games, and you still can't figure out how to say the name of our starting forward? Put some effort into your job, man. Also, he then left his mic on, because after an apparent Sounders handball he said "uh-oh" which was heard loud and clear by everyone in the box. Brought a good laugh out of everyone.

- I got to sit behind two San Jose writers, which was very entertaining. They muttered and cursed under their breaths whenever anything bad happened, which for their team was quite frequently. When Cam Weaver subbed on for them, one of them audibly said "Come on big man, f****** make something happen." In the 85th minute one of them got up, and when his partner asked where he was going, he replied, "to get some snacks." I never saw him again.

- The press box has food, but more importantly, free Jones Soda! Win.


A few bad apples

In general, Sounders fans have been absolutely amazing during the run-up to the beginning of the 2009 season, and the first few weeks into it. 3 sellouts, standing the whole game, raising scarves, chanting, cheering, generally being great soccer supporters. But during this period everything was going right for the franchise. The question hung overhead - how would fans respond to the first bit of adversity?

Well, it came Saturday night in a tough 1-0 loss to Kansas City. And the response was disappointing. During the game objects were thrown at the referees, though I didn't see anything worse than what looked like a paper airplane. And after the game, as the players walked off the pitch in the southeast corner of the stadium, two separate fans reportedly threw beer down on the players. One of the fans was ejected by police. At the other end of the pitch the referees were walking off, and I saw at least one fan spit down on them.

This is crap. Sounders fans can't be doing this. So maybe the referees didn't have a particularly good game. Guess what? It happens. This is MLS, which is not the top league in the world, and as such we won't be treated to the top referees in the world either. We have to get used to it, and we have to be smarter. And there's no excuse for throwing beer, or any projectiles really, at the players on the pitch. Ever.

Granted, this was a few isolated incidents, and the majority of the fans were reasonable, sending nothing more than a massive chorus of boos at the referees. But it's the bad apples that get the negative publicity. And as a young club, negative publicity is something we should avoid like the plague. So let's continue to be passionate - but reasonable - fans. There's a lot of season left, and it will contain a lot of adversity. Sounders fans should deal with it better.


Early season playoff dreams

There are a lot of people out there who might put aside the early success of the Seattle Sounders as a fluke, as a good thing that certainly can't last. They might point to the fact that teams that have started well fade very often, and the reverse is true as well. Houston last year being exhibit A - a terrible start which left them at the bottom of the league didn't stop them from being the best team in the West by years end. So, these people say, the success of the Sounders is great and all. But they're still an expansion team and they probably won't make the playoffs.

Don't listen to them. Already, Seattle is in prime position for the postseason.

Facts are facts, and 9 points are 9 points - the number Seattle has through 3 games. What'll it take to make the playoffs? All along I've been using 40 points as my benchmark. In a 30 game season, an average record of 10-10-10 will get you to 40 points. 8 teams make the playoffs out of 15 teams in the league, meaning the 8th team will necessarily be the average team in the league. Call it 40 points.

So with that as the target, and 9 of those 40 points out of the way, Seattle now has 27 games to get 31 points. And 13 of those games are at home, in the friendly confines of Qwest Field, which is quickly proving to be the most difficult venue in MLS after just two games. (Well, unless you have a soft spot for fans that throw beer and leave early.) Would 7 wins out of those 13 games be to ambitious a target? I don't think so. 7 wins gives you 21 points, making a total of 30. And yes, other games could yield more points in the form of draws. Which would be great.

With 30 points (at least) at home not seeming like too difficult a target, that leaves the other 14 games to pick up 10 more road points. This would be harder than you think: a few teams didn't manage this last season. But that still seems like a reasonable target, making two goals for the remainder of the season.

- Win 7 games at home
- Get 10 points on the road

Accomplish both of these, and I guarantee the Sounders will be playing in the playoffs in 2009.


Winning on the road

With the Sounders about to head off to their first road game in franchise history, I thought I would take a look at how past expansion teams have fared on the road. The statistics are... ghastly, really.

San Jose, 2008. 2-8-5. 11 points.
Toronto FC, 2007. 1-10-4. 7 points.
Real Salt Lake, 2005. 0-14-2. 2 points (!).
Chivas USA, 2005. 1-11-4. 7 points.

Those are some truly horrible numbers. But in reality, in MLS it's very difficult to win games on the road no matter how new or old your team is. Last year, no team won more than 6 games on the road. Three accomplished that feat, and those three were the best Eastern Conference teams - Columbus, New England, and Chicago. The average number of games won on the road last year was 3.35. Out of 15 total games!

Clearly success on the road will not come easily, and the Sounders shouldn't expect their success thus far to carry over to Toronto on Saturday, in one of the most hostile environments in the league. Anything other than a loss would be a huge surprise to me. So temper your expectations for the upcoming match.

Of course, if they *do* manage to win somehow, then we could be in for a special season indeed.


The Jeff Parke Saga

Jeff Parke won't be signing with the Seattle Sounders after all. And I honestly don't believe it's his fault.

According to Jose Romero's always excellent blog at the Seattle Times, Jeff Parke is no longer with the Sounders. He was barely just with them to begin with, having played in one reserve match and practicing a couple times without signing a contract. But Wednesday he left the team and seems unlikely to return.

Parke's case has been an unusual one. He was picked by Seattle from New York in the expansion draft, and did not have a contract with MLS at the time, making him effectively a free agent, though his rights belong to Seattle for the next two years. Instead of negotiating a deal with the Sounders, he attempted to fulfill one of his dreams by playing in Europe, but two trials in Belgium met with no success. He returned to the USA and Seattle last week to presumably attempt and work out a deal. That, clearly, has fallen through.

So what the hell is going on? To get some insight, check out this interview of Parke from last week. One particularly interesting quote on his negotiations with New York prior to the expansion draft - 'They gave me a number and at the end of the day I didn't agree with it," Parke said of his final contract talks with New York. "That was that. I obviously had some hurt and some anger toward the club for how it was handled and how I was kind of just left by myself.' He also mentions needing to look out for his family, something that has come up with him multiple times. And that's fair. He made about 60,000 last year, which isn't bad but is certainly less than someone as good as him should be making.

What this insightful interview shows us is that for Parke, it's about the money. The reason he was left unprotected by the Red Bulls wasn't because of his steroid suspension, or because he was an inferior talent. It was that he would have been too expensive. Fair enough. So Parke jumped for Europe, trying to get the big bucks. When that didn't work, he came back to Seattle to begin contract talks. And things looked good. But remember Sigi Schmidt's comment about Parke? Something along the lines of 'It's always good to have depth'. From that, and from the money Parke is probably looking for, upwards of 150 thousand dollars, the problem was clear. In terms of the roster, Parke was a luxury, not a necessity. The Sounders don't have a lot of money left under the cap, and what they do have they'd probably like to save for summer additions. They simply weren't able to offer Parke as much as he wanted.

It's a shame that Jeff Parke apparently isn't going to work out in Seattle. He's a very good player, a quality MLS starter, and we could use some more of those. I would imagine the next step would be shopping his rights to a defense-deficient team that has some salary cap space to work with. (New England, perhaps, to fill the hole left by Michael Parkhurst?)

I don't blame Parke for looking for the cash, though, or the Sounders for not giving it to him. What I do blame is the Scrooge-like salary cap of MLS that makes keeping players like Parke in America next-to-impossible. After this year, with the Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring, I hope we can see some major changes to the salary structures of MLS to keep things like the Jeff Parke saga from happening. Because in this situation, there is no winner.


The Sounders ad campaign

I've read the sports section of the Seattle Times for years. As a five year old, it was the first thing I began reading. And throughout all the years I've been doing that, I can't remember any time an advertisement was on the front page of the sports section.

Monday, though, I was shocked and delighted to see a huge Sounders ad in glorious full color, green and blue. It's just a incredibly well done ad. First off, it takes up probably a sixth of the entire front page. In large block letters are the words 'every minute counts,' a reference to both the teams 'give us your full 90!' slogan as well as the scarcity of Sounders tickets. The date of the next match (Saturday!) is given, along with information on how to get tickets. Alongside is a picture of a fan, green-clad, standing, yelling and holding a scarf. Finally, the slogan and a stylized logo are in the corner. [EDIT] And upon reading the sports today, another similar ad was on the front page. Damn. Pictures of both below - Monday's is on top, Wednesday's is on the bottom. Click below for a better quality image.So basically what these ads have done is tell every single literate sports fan in Seattle that the Sounders have hugely passionate fans, that it's going to be difficult to get tickets to join them, and - oh yeah - there just happens to be a game this weekend, so you should probably act fast. It's a brilliant bit of advertising.

Every Sounders fan really has to give huge props to both the ownership and the marketing departments/firms they've hired. The ownership because ads in the front page of the sports can't come cheap. Not only that, I've seen Sounders ads on the front page of the Times website, billboard ads, bus-side ads, you name it, they've done it. Joe Roth and co. are willing to spend big bucks to get big recognition, sacrificing short-term revenue for long-term popularity. And that's on top of the thousand or so scarves that have been distributed across the city for free. Which is where marketing comes in. Whoever thought up the 'scarf Seattle' campaign needs a raise. I've heard many people, not soccer fans, talk about the free scarves, and that's contributed to the overall interest in the Sounders. Guerilla marketing works and the Sounders are going about it wonderfully.
And hanging a giant scarf from a downtown building, from a bridge over Aurora Avenue, to catch the eyes of thousands as they drive by? It's just incredible stuff, especially for a soccer team in America, to be doing.

We're only one game into the history of Sounders FC. We shouldn't be patting ourselves on the back quite yet. There's a lot of stuff we, as fans, still have to learn, and we probably shouldn't be singing praises of everything Sounders related and thinking of ourselves as God's or Allah's or Xenu's gift to MLS. We aren't. But I can say with utter certainty that we have the best marketing in the league. The other 14 MLS teams would do well to take notice.