Big Soccer Surprise: 38,000 To See Match

WITH LITTLE FANFARE, soccer fans have snapped up more than 38,000 tickets for tomorrow night's exhibition match at the Kingdome. The unforeseen interest has local organizers asking: What comes next?

As a spectator sport, soccer has made so many false promises, defaulted on so many guarantees over the past two decades, that even local boosters of the game curbed their hopes for tomorrow night's exhibition at the Kingdome between the national teams from the United States and Russia.

Then in December, before organizers could get their ad campaign out, all of the most expensive tickets, at $25, sold out. Last week, as requests continued to pour in, the third deck of the Kingdome was opened for sales.

In all, more than 38,000 tickets have been sold for the 7 p.m. match. This, on a night when the SuperSonics are at home and on pay-per-view against the New York Knicks. This, to glimpse a U.S. team that last won a World Cup game when Harry Truman was president.

The unforeseen interest got local organizers thinking: What does this mean?

"What a shame that we didn't get the World Cup here - that's the first thing it tells me," said Michael Campbell, president of the Sports and Events Council of Seattle/King County. "I'm just stunned by the response."

Seattle-area civic and business leaders blew a sure thing when they turned away the chance two years ago to host several early-round games of the 1994 World Cup. But over the next three months, the same question will come before local leaders again - namely, whether to get hands-on about the hands-off sport.

Applications are due May 15 for cities bidding to join the upstart Major League Soccer, the first professional league of its caliber in the nation since the death of the North American Soccer League. Hoping to capitalize on interest generated from the World Cup this summer - all 52 tournament games are already sold out - MLS organizers plan to start play in 12 cities in April 1995.

Seattle is one of more than 30 cities that have expressed interest in acquiring a team, but has yet to apply formally with the league, said Bill Sage, chief operating officer of the MLS. Sage said the league expects a preliminary indication next week on whether Seattle plans to apply.

To gauge local desire for an MLS team, Campbell has called a "soccer summit" for Thursday at an undetermined location, open to anyone interested in helping bring the sport to Seattle.

Also still in the picture for local professional soccer is Alan Hinton, the former coach of the NASL Seattle Sounders and president of a group that wants to start an American Professional Soccer League team in Seattle under the name of the Sounders. He said last night the Sounders hope to begin play in August in the APSL, classified as a Division II league (the MLS is Division I).

Hinton contends that Seattle has little chance of getting one of the initial 12 MLS teams, and is a more likely candidate for an expansion franchise in later years. But, he added, he encouraged Campbell to call the summit because he wants to help bring pro soccer back to Seattle in the highest form possible.

The effort is a bit of a rush job, but joining the MLS requires less work than professional leagues in other sports. Rather than have franchises, the MLS plans to own the teams, hire their general managers and set player payrolls.

The primary obstacle for any professional soccer team from Seattle is finding a place to play. The Sounders have yet to find a home field for their inaugural APSL season. The MLS, meanwhile, wants cities by May to demonstrate progress toward building a 20,000- to 30,000-seat soccer stadium, plus plans for an interim site, said Sage, who was general manager of the now-defunct Seattle Storm soccer team before leaving to run the MLS.

By the size of the stadiums they are proposing, soccer promoters obviously have reduced the commercial expectations for their sport, which had been billed as the sport of the future in America back in the heyday of the NASL, during the 1970s and early '80s. Still, Seattle has no viable place to play immediately or over the long term, Sage said.

MLS officials are less concerned about Seattle's ability to come up with sales of 10,000 season tickets, as required in the May application in the form of $75 adult and $35 youth deposits, refundable if the city is not awarded a team. The region is considered one of the biggest soccer markets, a reputation enhanced by the ticket sales to the U.S.-Russia exhibition.

The last time the U.S. team played in Seattle, in February 1979, an exhibition against the Soviet Union drew 13,317 in the Kingdome. The long absence of big-time soccer in Seattle no doubt has helped ticket sales. But there also is a larger fan base than 15 years ago.

More than 88,000 kids play soccer in the state, up from 38,000 in 1979, according to the Washington State Youth Soccer Association. As a state, Washington now ranks sixth in the nation in participants, according to a survey released last year by the Soccer Industry Council of America. Much of the growth has been among girls, who now make up 31 percent of the state youth participants, said Mike Snodgrass, administrator for the WSYSA.

But if there's hope for soccer as a spectator sport, much of it is focused on the fact that many of the first children who played in the '70s are now parents.

"You have a generation of people who understand the sport," said Rick Davis, a former U.S. team captain and Tacoma Stars player. "In many respects, the people who supported the NASL were ethnic and were brought up playing the game at home, or people interested in going to an event.

"If you look at the crowd (tomorrow), these are soccer people who are native Washingtonians."

Plenty of questions remain for national soccer officials trying to translate participant rates into spectator support. Although more than 15.1 million people play the game at least once a year, soccer has a history of bad management at the upper levels.

Among those skeptical of current MSL leadership is Davis, who last year served as general manager of the Los Angeles Salsa of the American Professional Soccer League. He believes the MSL plans of 25,000-seat stadiums and payrolls of $4 million to $5 million a year are too ambitious.

Davis believes, though, that some form of a Division I league will be in place after the World Cup. His own league, the APSL, has applied for a Division I license with the U.S. Soccer Federation and hopes to fill in for the MLS if it fails.

Sage, of the MLS, is hoping Hinton's group can help put an MLS team in Seattle. Steve Brezniak, a spokesman for the Hinton group, said its members are not against working with MLS officials.

"We just want to play soccer," he said.

So does Chris Henderson, a midfielder from Everett who grew up watching the Sounders at the Kingdome and tomorrow will play with the national team for the first time before his hometown crowd. He hopes Seattle makes a push for a Division I franchise, so he has the chance to play here professionally after the World Cup.

"Kids need to see soccer on a high level," he said. "That's what kept me going and focused on making a pro team. Kids need something to shoot for."