SEATTLE - The Seattle Sounders were routed by European champions Barcelona in an exhibition game on Wednesday but the fans of Major League Soccer's newest franchise did not care. The team are a massive success, pulling in twice as many fans as the league average and boosting morale in a city starved of sports victories and working through the recession.
"We just love them in this town. We've been waiting for a team for a long time," Dan Sego, a 52-year-old engineer, said on outside Qwest Field.
"The stadium is packed. It's lifted the soccer community."
A sell-out crowd of 67,000 - a state record for soccer - watched Barcelona hand the local team in bright green a footballing lesson in a 4-0 victory. But it did not dampen the enthusiasm of their even more colourful followers.
"There's a huge soccer community in Seattle that I don't think most of the world understands or realises," said 47-year-old Seattle fan Jess Gobel.
"We appreciate the game, and we love the game."
Despite the city's reputation for gloomy weather and reserved attitude, Seattleites leapt at the chance to party on game day.
More than 1,000 fans in the team's "rave green" jerseys - a few with face paint and rainbow wigs - meet before every game in a downtown park to chant and sing with the help of Sound Wave, the team's official 53-piece marching band.
After a procession to the stadium on Wednesday, Sound Wave cut loose with a medley of funk, Latin and pop tunes rearranged for brass and booming drums.
"The Sounders are phenomenal," said Jeffrey Goligoski, who travelled four hours with his nephew to see the pre-game festivities.
"Budget and time mean we can't see every match, but if we could we would."
'EVERYONE'S INTO IT'
Win or lose, the locals are determined to celebrate.
They are still sore from losing the Seattle SuperSonics basketball franchise last year to Oklahoma City, while the Seattle Seahawks football team and Seattle Mariners baseball team are in the doldrums.
The Sounders are in the chase to be MLS champions, two-thirds of the way through the regular season, standing second in the western conference behind Houston Dynamo.
It is a measure of the Sounders' progress that Barcelona would even consider stepping on the same field.
"The Pacific Northwest has always loved football (soccer). It's the biggest participatory sport and it's slowly becoming the biggest viewed sport," said Chris Rose, who travels 140 miles (226 km) from Vancouver, Canada for Sounders home games.
"Within a five-mile radius this is like England. Everybody's wearing their jerseys, everyone's upbeat, everyone's into it."
Rose is ready to switch allegiance in 2011 when Vancouver enters a team into the MLS. Portland, 175 miles south of Seattle, also has a team joining that year, setting up a hot regional rivalry.
The City of Seattle has not published any data on the economic impact of the new team but businesses close to the stadium are glad of a new source of income.
"It's been a huge impact on the area around us here economically," said Troy Anderson, 47, owner of the King Street Bar and Oven, a short walk from the stadium, which is also home to the Seahawks.
"The fervour, the fanaticism and the money being spent back into the economy in my restaurant and other shops around this area, it's definitely noticeable."
With the slack economy taking a bite out of people's budgets, and big local employers Boeing Co and Microsoft Corp cutting thousands of jobs, soccer crowds are proving to be resilient spenders.
"We've noticed a big dip in spending at sporting events," said Anderson.
"They'll still pay to go to the event but they may not pay to go out to have a beer and something to eat beforehand or after. The Sounders have really helped us with that. Two or three hours before the games they are in here and money is being spent."
In their first season in the MLS, the Sounders have set a league record for attendance, averaging 30,204 for home games. That is almost twice the league average of 15,412 and almost 50 percent more than the next best, Toronto FC.
The new team are helping the MLS through a tough patch, as fans have less money to spend on tickets. MLS average attendance is down 6 percent from last year. Without the Sounders, who played their first game in March, it would be a steeper decline.
In comparison, baseball attendance is down 5 percent from last year, although that is partly attributable to some new, smaller stadiums. The Sounders are outselling the Mariners, who are averaging 27,670 fans per home game.
"(The) formula is working in Seattle, we have a perfect storm here of very passionate fans," MLS commissioner Don Garber said in an interview with Reuters earlier this week.
Losing a game to Barcelona has not dented that passion.
"It was amazing fun," said Becky Eaton, a 35-year-old legal assistant. "I was right above the pep band. It was loud. We lost 4-0, but I expected we would lose."comments