Saturday night saw the latest installment of America’s greatest soccer rivalry between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers played out in continental fashion. By continental fashion, I don’t mean lazily smoking a cigarette while enjoying a tiny coffee and impossibly delicate pastry. I mean continental in that the two clubs involved, Sounders 2 and Timbers 2, were “B” teams playing in the third division, a familiar sight in Germany and Spain.
The United States and England have both been beating the drum of player development loudly and often, but the US Soccer Federation is free to make sweeping changes at almost every level of the game with a minimum of fuss. When the chairman of the English Football Association, Greg Dyke, proposed introducing a League Three combining the top half of the Conference and 10 Premier League “B” teams, he was met with fierce opposition; when it was announced that Major League Soccer would introduce eight reserve teams in America’s third tier, United Soccer League, for the 2015 season, the response consisted of a collective shrug of the shoulders. The hope is that these talented young players who previously only had a choice of either playing at an amateur level for their university or sitting in the reserves of an MLS team will gain invaluable experience playing at a professional level.
However, who would pay to go watch an experiment in player development? I went because Starfire Stadium, the home of Sounders 2, is an easy walk from my home. I expected to find troops of sporting hipsters there doing the legwork to be able to say that they know all about Pablito Rossi and feign surprise when you don’t. I figured that the hipster capital of the world, Portland, would fill up the away fans section, but only about 15 mustachioed fans made the trip. 2,300 Seattle fans were there as well, and I asked my neighbors at halftime what it was that compelled them to come to this match. The answers I got would make the Sounders marketing team proud; these fans had, quite literally, bought in to idea of building the future core of the first team here. They all had season tickets and had purchased shares of the club through the Sounders Community Trust.
I asked an older couple behind me what they thought of the game so far, and the woman was perplexed why Andy Craven, the scorer of S2’s first goal, was being played out wide rather than through the middle. I suspect it was because the coaching staff was interested in preparing him for that role with the first team or maybe they wanted to give the young forward Darwin Jones, a Sounders’ academy and recent University of Washington graduate, a chance to get more matches under his belt. She was more interested than most about player development, because her grandson, Duncan McCormick, was making his first start on the left wing for S2.
McCormick is another graduate of the Sounders academy. In fact, his father is the head coach there. He recently turned down a scholarship to play for Wake Forest University because he saw S2 as a better route to earn his place on the Sounders’ first team. The game finished 2-1 with a dramatic late winner for the home side, and McCormick, who had been substituted in the 76th minute, was the first to run on to the field at the final whistle to congratulate his teammates and continued to celebrate with the home supporters after most of the players had the left the field. I’m looking forward to seeing McCormick develop and the USL experiment unfold. I hope it doesn’t take too long though. I can’t wait to see him run on to CenturyLink Field for the Sounders’ first team, and I can then exchange a knowing look with the other hipsters because we were there in the beginning, man.