by Jeff Nguyen, Student Intern
It’s incredibly hard to glance over them, even as the in-stadium music comes on over the speakers and the din of the gathering crowd grows to a roar. Singing, chanting, and shouting for 90 minutes on end, skull bandanas and elaborate flags, and an incredible, undeniable passion for the Seattle Sounders, puts a spotlight on CenturyLink Field’s South End, sections 121-123. This is the heartland of the Emerald City Supporters, a central authority in the rise of the Sounders’ fan base.
It’s 2016, and even as the Sounders fall 1-0 to Sporting KC on a drizzly Seattle evening, the Emerald City Supporters (ECS) sing and chant long after the rest of the fans have drifted out of the stadium. Win, draw, or loss, traditions such as standing and singing long after the match has ended are integral to ECS, whose support for the home team stretches back to 2005 when the Sounders played in the now-defunct United Soccer League (USL). Since then the ECS has expanded heavily, occupying the general admission stretch of CenturyLink Field, and boasting up to 3000 paying members.
The aim of the group is to fervently support the Seattle Sounders both at home and away, and they have managed to achieve that in many creative and spectacular ways. Chants and songs, some borrowed from Latin and European soccer leagues, accompany massive tifos (commemorative banners held up by the entire seating section), flags and posters. Coordination with affiliated groups and members away from home ensures national support wherever the Sounders go.
Many members were simply drawn to the passion that ECS exudes after attending a Sounders match. One such member is Woody Favinger, a local Sounders supporter and ECS member: “You can’t go into a Sounders game and not notice ECS. They were that awesome group down at the south end that made the atmosphere of the game really fun. I was just sort of aware of them and bought a membership to support them. It was a cool thing to consider myself part of… I’ve gotten more and more involved ever since.”
Favinger, a lead tifo organizer for ECS, is one of many fans enjoying the successes of the team, such as 3 US Open Cups or the internationals playing at CenturyLink from Eddie Johnson to Clint Dempsey; that, among many other factors, have added a substantial basis for attendance and fan culture. The growth in attendance at Sounders games can only be described as exponential. From a couple thousand seats filled in the USL, the Sounders have recently set MLS attendance records exceeding 50,000, easily challenging attendance numbers in the English Premier League and Italian Serie A.
“My opinion is it’s really a combination. One being early success, winning and winning from the get go,” said Favinger, referring to the 3-0 victory against New York Red Bulls on the Sounders’ first day in MLS, “I think ECS has played a huge part in it… having that basis in organized support really helped get people interested and involved… The last key is the downtown stadium. Across the league, teams that have easily accessible stadiums do much better in terms of numbers.” Alongside that, the team is also run with a democratic state of mind; season ticket holders are able to vote on critical decisions such as the potential removal of the general manager.
Another crucial ingredient that has contributed to the Sounders’ growing fanbase is the loud and constant atmosphere that ECS facilitates. The ECS modus operandi of non stop intensity, while superficially in contrast with Seattle’s laidback archetype, is not lost on other sports teams. “I think, when it comes to sports, it’s always different. Like the Seahawks fans, people wouldn’t consider them laidback. When it comes to sports, people are motivated to act different than they otherwise would,” said Favinger.
And just as the Seahawks rely on an eternal grudge with the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers to fuel their support, the Sounders fan base looks forward to the warlike clashes with the Vancouver Whitecaps and the especially hated Portland Timbers. “A real rivalry has to have history, you can’t manufacture that, and the Sounders and Whitecaps have been playing each other since the 70s. I think what MLS did is put a spotlight on that history, and that amplified everything,” said Favinger.
A special mention must be made to the NW rivalry between Seattle and Portland. Since the games began in 1974, games have averaged 55,000+ attendees, and have been hailed as one of the fiercest derbies (local rivalry games) in world soccer. In one instance there was a “build a bonfire” tifo, aiming to resonate with the Timbers’ arboreal motif. The ECS are obviously no stranger to this, holding a rivalry with their equally zealous counterpart, the Timbers Army.
Despite the ECS’ pivotal role in Sounders culture, the group has struggled somewhat with media perception concerning violence and negative stereotyping, although no noteworthy incidents have surfaced. A point of controversy has been the chants with violent rhetoric. “There’s a difference between the intent of the songs and the words themselves, but I can see how some could get offended,” said Favinger, “In sports, people oftentimes use war and battle analogies, which is a little ridiculous because at the end of the day, it’s a game and nobody wants to get hurt or fight or kill each other”.
The issues that ECS has faced have concerned illegal pyrotechnics and occasional inappropriate gestures and behaviors. However many of those images are frequently recycled for marketing purposes, something that Favinger is keen to address: “If I had any problem with how the group is portrayed, it’s more around the hypocrisy of getting the group in trouble for smoke bombs or flipping off cameras or stuff like that, but then using pictures of our smoke bombs and whatnot for marketing purposes”. The attention grabbing aspect of these events drives marketing efforts, and many ECS members are concerned about the exploitation of the false perception of supporter groups as full of violence.
“People can say what they want, they can have whatever opinions they want. My feeling is we’re here to support the Sounders, and so as long as the players feel that support, that’s all I care about,” said Favinger.
These sentiments are likely echoed by many ECS supporters, and as the ECS expands under the revitalization of American interest in soccer and the growth of MLS, many are hopeful for the future of the group: “There is new ECS leadership this year, and I think that it’s an encouraging sign that there are people who are willing to step up and take on those responsibilities, because it is a lot of work to be in charge of a supporters’ group, and the fact that we have been able to transfer the group over… is an encouraging sign for the longevity of the group”.
And 10 years on, the ECS, and similar supporter groups including the antifascist Gorilla FC and the ever present North End Faithful, can still take solace in the crowds dressed in vibrant green and blue for every home game, 40,000 coming to the 2016 opener. And every home game weekend, the collective roar of the MLS’ largest crowds to date, from the March to the Match, a longtime tradition rooted to Occidental Ave, to the full-time whistle, has the Pacific Northwest standing shoulder to shoulder with the most fervent, religious fans of the beautiful game across the world.
“One of my favorite little moments was against Salt Lake in the 2013 season, when Andy Rose scored a 93rd minute winner. My brother and wife were on the field, I had gotten the last 20 (minutes) for them on the field… and my brother, he was just coming off a bad bike accident, had a rough few months, and he was on the field for that goal,” said Favinger, “and I remember after the game for him it was like the first moment since his accident and being in the hospital that he just felt joy, and so having that collective experience with everyone in the stadium… was just really cool. One of my all-time favorite moments”.
Profile of a Super Fan
Name: Woody Favinger
Hometown: Bellingham, Washington
Interest in soccer: “I played soccer growing up, but I quit around middle school… I was probably one of those fans who got really excited around the World Cup cycle… I started going to Sounders games around 2011 when I moved back to Seattle.”
Involvement with ECS since 2013, now lead tifo organizer: “I had seen somewhere something about needing help painting tifos and said ‘I want to help’.”
Thoughts on a Sounders success: “When Marco Pappa scored that goal off a free kick, it felt more like just relief… what the Supporter’s Shield did was make all those little moments in the season have a measurable impact.”
Favorite tifo: “I think my favorite one that we’ve ever done was the 10-year anniversary tifo… a lot of people have put their time and effort and heart and soul into making the group something, and so a tifo celebrating the history of ECS… and memorializing those who have passed and meant a lot, sort of sharing that appreciation with lot of people, was really great.”
Thoughts on the first match loss of 2016: “It was disappointing, but we have to try to remember that it was the first game… it all comes down to tiny moments, like if Jordan Morris had finished that first chance, and we would have been 1-nil up, and the KC goal never happened… but today those tiny moments just didn’t break our way.”