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Seattle crowd lives up to top billing

BRING THE NOISE
The fans in Seattle brought an incredible atmosphere to the USA match.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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SEATTLE

RED, WHITE AND BLUE!

See the best images from the USA's World Cup qualifying win over Panama at Seattle.

They had started filing in hours before the game, neatly folding their enormous banners for seamless deployment and setting up their elaborate sound system in order to synchronize chants. There would be thousands of them, and they had to get organized.

By the time the United States men's national team started warming up for their World Cup qualifier against Panama, they were well into their repertoire of chants and songs, arms wrapped over the shoulders of the men and women next to them, hopping in unison.

“We bring the noise and we bring the ruckus!” bellowed the throaty man on the little stand in front of the southernmost section of CenturyLink Field, through his speakers.

“The U-S-A ain’t nothin’ to [expletive] with!” answered the rapt crowd before him. The thrum of drums vibrated through the concrete steps and up through your legs.

Shawn Wheeler stood off to the side, surveying the scene. He’s the president of the Seattle chapter of the American Outlaws, the USA’s nationally franchised supporters’ club. As such, he was responsible for all of this, for the Pacific Northwest seizing the chance to host a World Cup qualifier it had so long coveted.

“The last one was in 1976,” said Wheeler. “It’s been five years trying to get one. So for a lot of us this is a dream come true.”

For years, as Major League Soccer games drew one record crowd after another and fostered an atmosphere that rivaled that of Europe’s most beloved leagues, there’d been a clamor for a national team presence up here. This could be the USA’s new home, a setting even more treacherous to their foes than Columbus, Ohio had long been. A place where opponents would loathe coming, the way the Americans were always brought to the most daunting of buildings Mexico and the Central American countries could throw at them. Where they knew they were a psychological goal behind when they first tread the field.

LOUD AND PROUD

Check out the American Outlaws singing in Seattle during the USA's win over Panama.

“We’ve been doing it week in and week out for the Sounders for years,” said Wheeler. “So it was only a matter of time before US Soccer recognized what we’ve been doing and brought us a game.”

But leading up to the game, ticket sales lagged behind the towering expectations. A Seattle Sounders game against their regional rivals Vancouver Whitecaps had drawn 53,000 on Saturday. But it didn’t look like the USA would fill up the 45,000 seats the stadium’s capacity would be capped at.

There was a theory that Seattle wouldn’t turn out for the national team the way it did for its Sounders. That Sounders fandom was a hipster pursuit, an affliction that wouldn’t translate because these customers ultimately weren’t soccer fans per se. That Seattle wasn’t really a soccer town, just a town in the thrall of a soccer fad.

Wheeler shrugged his shoulders at the suggestion and simply pointed behind him, at the heaving morass of humanity. They were 3,000 strong in the fan section, believed to be the largest such assembly at a USA game ever.

The other concern before this game was the field. This one seemed rather justified. Aside from its problematic geography and the draining travel reaching it required, a stumbling block to Seattle being awarded a game had long been CenturyLink’s FieldTurf surface. In order to make the game happen, the United States Soccer Federation had laid sod over the turf, reportedly at the expense of $100,000. Some players had voiced concern. And throughout the game, the greying grass looked slippery. Cleats cut long gashes into it, strewing clumps all about.

But no player flagged it as having been a major issue. “The field was fine,” said defender Matt Besler. “A couple of bumps here and there. A couple of guys slipped but it wasn’t an issue at all.”

But the atmosphere, this town’s real selling point that would overwhelm all of its flaws, came as advertised. Came better than advertised.

Just before kickoff, the Outlaws unfurled their “tifo” – enormous home-made signs briefly flashed prior to a game – stretching out over the entire lower bowl behind the goal. The four crests the federation has had flashed up, followed by the original one again, worn this year to commemorate its hundredth anniversary. “100 years of history… our time starts now,” read the lettering above it.

During the national anthem, the entire stadium raised the scarves that had been handed out – “Through the perilous fight,” they said – to form a sea of red. And then followed the real noise.

Led by the Outlaws, a crowd of 40,847 – the seventh-largest crowd for a World Cup qualifier on American soil, leaving only the corners of the upper deck vacant – produced a racket, a brazen assault on the ear drum, that couldn’t have failed to be chilling to the visiting Panamanians. Coupled with the boos washing over the referee and his many doubtful decisions, USA had the real home-field advantage so often missing in its endless trekking through the country.

The volume crescendoed when Jozy Altidore put the USA ahead in the 36th minute. A stadium worker hollered over the din that it was even louder than when the Sounders played. And when Eddie Johnson, incidentally of the Sounders, cemented the 2-0 win in the 53rd.

After the final whistle, the crowd gave a final heartfelt roar. Then it broke into its last chant.

“U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A,” they cried.

The much-anticipated party had come off. “All the rationale for coming to Seattle was fully justified,” said US Soccer president Sunil Gulati.

Putting the Outlaws’ hardware away in the bowels of the stadium following the game, Wheeler was flushed from the exertion. “With the hundreds and thousands of hours put into it from our team, it was everything we’d hoped for and more,” he beamed. “The tifo came off perfectly, the support for our guys was great and it couldn’t have gone any better.”

“Right from warm-ups until thanking the crowd after the game, it was absolutely nuts,” said USA defender Brad Evans, also a Sounder. “But to be expected. It’s nothing new. So not surprising at all.”

All the hype had been underpinned by substance. At last, the national team had arrived in Seattle. And it proved a fortress indeed.

“Obviously Columbus is great and Kansas City has been fantastic, but this was rocking,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard. “They did themselves justice tonight. It’s the best crowd around and we knew they’d be up for it. We can’t get back to Seattle soon enough.”

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