Seattle loved the Sounders of '74

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The hair of John Best's arm still stands up at the thought. The image of the Seattle Sounders' first goal in their inaugural home game 30 years ago is burned into the mind of the club's first coach.

The excitement in Best's voice climbs as he describes midfielder Willie Penman's second-minute goal in the Sounders' 4-0 victory over the Denver Dynamos on May 12, 1974, the franchise's first home match at Memorial Stadium.

Best, now 63, recalls Penman getting to the ball 40 yards out, running at the goal, then seeing an opening and driving a 25-yard shot inside the right post.

"He cracked it with his right foot," Best recalls. "It was a skimming drive and it just flashed across.

"Things just kind of billowed out from the field and everybody went crazy. I get goose-bumps now talking about it."

Almost 30 years have passed since the English-born Best and Scottish-born defenders Jimmy Gabriel and Dave Gillett helped the franchise give birth to professional soccer in Seattle.

Seattle soccer fans began a three-decade love affair with the team, which set U.S. attendance records and even packed the Kingdome. There would be championships and disappointments, including the death of the franchise in 1983 and its rebirth 11 years later.

Through it all, that first game and season remain a highlight for those who were there.

"That first season of playing in Memorial Stadium was the most fun I had playing soccer ever," said Gillett, now a driver for Airborne Express. "We were big time. It was just perfect timing for something new and different. The only sports competition was the (Sonics) basketball team in the winter.

"I guess the city was ready for something else in pro sports."

Gone are the days when 12,132 people turned out to watch the Sounders play that first match. Gone are the times when Seattle soccer drew an average of 20,183 fans and crowds up to 58,128 from 1975 to 1982.

"We didn't think there would be that many people at first," said Gabriel, who played from 1974 to '76 and then was coach after Best left from 1977 to '79. "We just heard this roar. It meant so much to me, the crowd cheering. There was just a spark between the players and the crowd.

"They lifted us. Everybody played above their normal level the whole season. It was basically because of the positive feedback they were giving us."

Those were the good ol' days.

The wear and tear forced Gabriel, 63, to retire and have hip-replacement surgery years ago. Gillett, 53, had hip-replacement surgery two months ago.

Diagnosed with kidney disease in 1990, Best went through years of dialysis before his wife, Claudia Best, gave her husband one of her kidneys in January 2002.

The transplant that saved his life helped the former English and U.S. pro player appreciate the good times even more.

"People were literally crying in the stands for that last game of 1974 and we had won," said Best, whose wife was one of the first employees of the 1976 expansion Seahawks, who had the same ownership group as the Sounders. "It was because the season was over and they didn't know if all the same players would be back.

"You don't see that often in professional sports. It was just genuine human feelings."

Because of the kidney transplant and risk of infection with his weakened immune system, Best limits trips from his Belltown condominium. He tries to make at least one Sounders match each season, but it's not the same to him as '74.

Gabriel re-joined the Sounders' organization last season as an assistant coach.

"I'm doing something to give back," he said.

That first home match kicked off an amazing era known as "The Camelot Years" for the Sounders from 1974 to 1979.

"The first two or three weeks I was here, I was invited to fans' houses 10 times for dinner," said Gillett, who still owns part of Victory Soccer store in Bellevue. "A Scotsman doesn't turn down a free dinner, you know. It was just really friendly here."

Said Gabriel: "You're never going to replace that spirit we had in 1970s and '80s. It was a wonderful, wonderful time."

Nary a raindrop fell during the Sounders first two seasons at Memorial.

"I think we got some assistance from above," said Best, who built the original team primarily with veteran players from Europe, mainly England and Scotland.

The Sounders hosted the first sellout crowd (13,876) in NASL history on June 22, 1974. The club played to six sellouts in its inaugural season, finishing 13-7, but missing the playoffs.

After that first season of success, seating at Memorial was expanded, and in July 1975 the team set a NASL attendance record with a crowd of 17,925. The crowd was matched twice more.

"It was a bunch of long-haired foreign guys playing a sport," Gillett said. "The fans could see we were enjoying what we were doing. It was like watching the Olympics back when it was more pure.

"We were doing it for the love of the game."

In 1976, the Sounders outgrew Memorial Stadium and moved into the spacious Kingdome.

The first sporting event at the Kingdome was a North American Soccer League exhibition between the Sounders and the New York Cosmos on April 9, 1976. In front of 58,128 fans, the great Pele led the Cosmos to a 3-1 victory.

Last season, in the Sounders' first full season at 67,000-seat Seahawks Stadium, the A-League club averaged just 3,452 fans.

Now, the franchise hopes to move up to Major League Soccer (MLS).

It could be the chance to win back the hearts of Seattle soccer fans and come full circle from those glory days of the 1970s.

"I don't believe we can get the big crowds until we're in MLS," Gabriel said. "That's because it's the No. 1 league in the nation. To get the big crowds, you've got to be in the major leagues."

Like the Sounders of '74.