MLS Cup in Seattle: A city collectively experiencing night sweats, remembering Sigi, Vanney explains his fashion sense
SEATTLE -- Just how crazy is the city of Seattle about Sunday's MLS Cup final (3 p.m. ET, watch live on ABC) between its beloved Sounders and Toronto FC? All 69,000-plus seats at CenturyLink Field were snapped up less than three hours after they went on sale. As of Saturday morning, tickets on the aftermarket could still be found -- for more than $1,000 apiece.
But at Friday's training session, the focus was on the number 20 rather than 69,000. That's about how many former Sounders and other Seattle soccer luminaries gathered to take in the team's penultimate training session in suburban Tukwila.
Alan Hinton, who managed the Sounders in their NASL days, organized the gathering, and it offered a peek into the club's past. Former defender Jimmy McAlister was there. So was Wade Webber, he of the A-League vintage Sounders. There was Danny Jackson and Chance Fry and Seattle University men's coach Peter Fewing, who toiled for the Seattle Storm after the demise of the NASL. They may not be household names, mind you, but they are part of the fabric of the sport in Seattle. It's not that unusual either to see Sounders alumni stop by at training. Just about every time I've been to Seattle, you can see them taking in practice, although Sunday's occasion is no doubt special.
"It's almost like an anniversary, really," Hinton said. "I came to coach the Sounders in November of 1979. We had a very good year, and we've had many good years. So it's sort of appropriate that in November of 2019, not only are we going to the final in our own field, but our coach is the boy I drafted at 17 years of age in November of '79. He's still here, and he's doing a great job. For me it's happy days in Seattle."
The "boy" of course is Seattle manager Brian Schmetzer, who more than anyone epitomizes all things Sounders. He played for the team in its NASL days, managed it at second-tier level, served as an assistant under Sigi Schmid and then took over midway through the 2016 season and led the team to that year's MLS Cup. Maintaining the connections to the team's past is what sets the Sounders apart from much of their MLS brethren. There's a momentum, a force of will that goes beyond the first team. It's what has kept the Sounders alive, even through the darkest moments in the sport's history.
"I think it's massively important because this franchise wouldn't be where it's at had Alan Hinton not stayed around, Pepe Fernandez not stayed around, Dave Gillett, Frank Barton, Neil Megson, Bernie James, I know I'm going to miss about 12 other names," Schmetzer said. "We have that connection, that bond that they were players, then they go out and they reinforce in their little parts of the world about how great the Sounders are and what it means to be a pro soccer player."
Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan recalled how the immersion into the Sounders history started right away during his rookie season.
"Schmetz would pull me aside and ask me, 'You know who this guy is?' and he puts me on the spot," he said. "I had to learn all of these guys' names to feel like I was part of the club."
There's also an acknowledgement of just how much the league has grown. Webber spent the 1998-99 MLS seasons with the Miami Fusion. He calls what's happened since, both in Seattle and elsewhere, "dizzying."
"When I left MLS in '99 I thought it was dying," said Webber, now an assistant coach with the Tacoma Defiance. "There's proper glitter now, not the fake stuff of the '96 era. There's a proper buzz in the city. It's been out of this world."
For all the attention on who is taking the week in, more than a passing thought is being spared for a man who isn't. It was Schmid who took the Sounders into the MLS era, giving them instant credibility by winning four U.S. Open Cups and the 2014 Supporters' Shield. He was fired midway through the MLS Cup-winning season in 2016, and passed away last December. There is no danger of him being forgotten.
"[Schmid's] impact on this club was significant, his impact on Brian," Hinton said. "Sigi would have been very proud. I still miss him."
Schmetzer has long since made the job his own, and reaching his third MLS Cup final means his spot in Seattle is secure. Game day will no doubt be fraught with tension for Schmetzer, but he admitted he'll take time to give a silent nod to his former mentor.
"Once the game starts, I've got to focus," Schmetzer said. "But when [goalkeeper coach] Tommy Dutra and I walk out on the field, we'll think about [Schmid]."
This is the third time in four years that Toronto and Seattle have squared off in the final. The prospect of playing before such a huge crowd isn't something that the Reds will find particularly daunting. This is a team that has played in big games and hostile environments, especially during its run to the final of the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League, when it dispatched the likes of Mexican giants Tigres and Club America. In 2019, Toronto has already knocked out higher-seeded New York City FC and Atlanta United on the road.
"We understand what these days are like. We're battle tested," Toronto captain Michael Bradley said. "It's not to say that everything goes perfectly, not even close, but we know how to pull through certain moments."
Much of the focus for Toronto is the status of injured striker Jozy Altidore. He admitted to ESPN that it would take "a miracle" to play. Toronto hasn't exactly struggled in his absence, with Alejandro Pozuelo causing plenty of problems for opponents by operating as a false 9. That doesn't stop the assembled press from watching Altidore's every move during Friday's warm-up or peppering manager Greg Vanney with questions about the forward's health.
Vanney not only takes such queries in stride, he can even afford to laugh about his impact on MLS playoff fashion. While the leather jacket that then-FC Dallas manager Schellas Hyndman wore during the team's run to the 2010 final still sits atop the MLS Managerial Fashion table, Vanney's scarf has gained some notice, especially after he wore it indoors in the Eastern Conference final win against Atlanta United.
"We've started calling him 'Vanney Vice,'" said Dylan Doyl, 35, who in addition to being a fundraiser for a Canadian nonprofit, is one of the leaders of the TFC supporters' group, Kings in the North. "At the start of the year he was wearing a tracksuit in Panama. Now he's got the grizzled beard, the hair back, and with the scarf he looks like he's graduated from junior detective to chief detective."
Of course, at the beginning of the playoffs, with games in Toronto and New York, the scarf was practical. It certainly wasn't so in Atlanta, but Vanney didn't want to break one of the cardinal rules of sports and mess with a winning streak.
"In Atlanta, I looked at the other coaches and said, 'Can I really wear the scarf indoors? Does that really make sense?' They were like, 'You gotta do it.' So I wore it," Vanney said. "But about three-quarters of the way through the game, I'm like, 'It's hot in here, I'm getting sweaty. I'm going to pass out.' So I took it off for the latter part of the game. I'm not super-superstitious. It's a routine that I just stuck with and the coaches talked me into as well."
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For fans like Doyl, the fact that this final is in Seattle as opposed to Toronto is, on one level, more enjoyable. There's less logistical work and scrambling for tickets, although the group did see fit to donate almost $400 to a Seattle-area food drive. While he admits that among him and his friends there's been "a spectrum of nerves," now there's just excitement.
"It's like group therapy, you're working through your nerves ahead of time. It talks the nerves out," he said over breakfast. "And obviously you're nervous in the sense of you don't know how it's going to play out. But I'm excited to get in the stadium and start going. Away days as a fan are just the best."
For Seattle, there seems to be more at stake, at least emotionally. The players don't want to let down their fans, and given the crowd, there's almost an obligation to win. That tension is felt even among the Sounders alumni.
"My wife had an anxiety dream last night," Webber said. "She got up thinking we lost. She woke up in a cold sweat. It's weird that 70,000 people are having night sweats."
There's now less than 24 hours to go for that nervous energy to be unleashed.