Don't look now, but Major League Soccer now has a marquee fanbase.
For the second game in a row, the Seattle Sounders FC were able to generate impressive numbers at the gate. While last weekend's crowd of 55,718 for their 2-0 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps was slightly down from the 60,928 that saw the Sounders defeat the Los Angeles Galaxy earlier this month, it is still good for the second-highest attendance of any MLS game this season. Both games also cracked the top 20 list of the highest-attended games in the history of the league.
And keep in mind, the Sounders did this during back-to-back regular season home games.
These games have boosted Seattle's average attendance - already on record pace - up to 42,610 per contest, a figure that is nearly as large as the next two MLS franchises put together. It's enough to make one wonder what the Sounders could have done had they not artificially limited the capacity of 67,000-seat Century Link Field (commonly referred to as "the CLink") to 38,500 for the first half of the season.
More importantly, the Sounders have finally given MLS a franchise whose fan support fits right in with the world's best-supported teams.
Among the world's professional soccer leagues, only Bundeslinga (Germany) has a higher league average attendance per team than what Seattle is drawing this year. The Sounders would rank 6th among English Premier League franchises (just ahead of EPL powerhouse Chelsea) and 26th overall in Europe.
So what has caused soccer to explode in popularity in the Emerald City?
For starters, MLS stumbled into the absolute best time to award a franchise to Seattle. The city had just lost the NBA's Supersonics in one of the most bitter pro sports divorces in recent memory, while at the same time both the NFL's Seahawks and MLB's Mariners were coming off highly disappointing seasons. Sports fans in the city were at an incredibly low point and were eager to show support for a successful team again, and the Sounders stepped in and filled the void admirably.
Another reason is that the Sounders management has made just about every correct call in cultivating a fanbase. Residents of the city were allowed to choose the team name and colors, and the Sounders are the only pro sports team in the United States with a member organization of fans that has significant say in team matters.
Finally, the Sounders have also done a terrific job in fostering rivalries. Seattle has always been fairly isolated as a pro sports town; both the Mariners and Seahawks are over 800 miles from their nearest foes. Historically, this has made it difficult for the franchise to develop meaningful rivalries like the one that the Sonics enjoyed with the Portland Trail Blazers for most of their existence.
The 2011 MLS expansion, however, added both the Whitecaps and the Portland Timbers to the league, giving Seattle not one but two regional rivals. All three franchises have capitalized on this in a big way, bringing the longstanding Cascadia Cup to MLS and creating what are widely considered the best gameday environments in the league. Because of this, the Pacific Northwest is now regarded as the hotbed of soccer in North America.
The good times figure to continue for Sounders FC, as the support from an increasingly soccer-mad fanbase should only increase. In fact, there's a good chance that the Sounders will break the franchise's single-game attendance record later this season.
Portland, after all, still has yet to make a trip to the CLink.