SEATTLE — The pre-game party throughout Pioneer Square and SoDo rivalled Seattle’s parties for the Fourth of July, New Year’s Eve and Sounders FC matches.
The cheers and chants inside CenturyLink Field on Tuesday were loud, constant and full of patriotic fervor and intensity for the United States Men’s National Team on Tuesday.
It was 37 years in the making, with the last three years of Seattle and Washington state soccer fans rhythmically chanting for this chance to shine.
And when the United States and Panama marched onto the temporary sod field for the national anthems, the crowd sang the “Star Spangled Banner” with anthem singer Michael Wassman with style and a pent-up energy of a youth soccer player starting his first-ever match.
“The best crowd I’ve ever played (in front of) in the United States, without a doubt,” U.S. midfield Michael Bradley said.
After 94 minutes of play, the United States got goals from Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson to secure a 2-0 victory over Panama. The Yanks’ play was fluid, crisp and controlling. The final finishing touch was off early, but was threatening and dangerous for most of the match.
Throughout the night, the U.S. players were serenaded with a wall of noisy support from the opening kickoff to the final whistle.
“It is a dream come true — to play in the U.S. jersey is a honor, first and foremost, and to play in front of my fans week, you couldn’t ask for a better feeling after that goal,” midfielder Eddie Johnson, who plays for the Seattle Sounders FC, said. “That’s all the boys have been talking about in the dressing room after the game. I’m not going to say any names, but some of them said that they’d love the chance to play in Seattle someday. They all said it was a European atmosphere out there.”
“I thought (the support) was absolutely fantastic,” U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez, who plays for the MLS’s Los Angeles Galaxy and has been on the opposite side of Seattle’s rabid fanbase before.
“The fans were amazing. To hear how loud they got at points in the game, I am really happy we got to chance to play here in Seattle. It was nice to be able to have them cheering for me for once.”
The official count was 40,867 in the stands. At times, it felt like more than 67,000 fans who pack CenturyLink Field for Seahawks games.
When Altidore opened the scoring in the 36th minute, slotting home a far-post running cross from Fabian Johnson past a hapless Panama goalkeeper, Jaime Penedo, the crowd response gave the stadium press box a nice little shake. It wasn’t a full-blown earthquake-esque rumble that accompanies a Marshawn Lynch touchdown run, but enough to shake the rafters.
Across the street at Safeco Field, a little more than 10,000 fans saw the Mariners blank the Houston Astros, 4-0. On the ESPN2 broadcast, it was joked that just 3,500 fans were at the game, a rumor that flew through the press box and in the stands. Obviously, that was false and didn’t come close to the smallest home game attendance at Safeco Field in M’s history — 9,818 in late April.
However, it did make for some good jokes and laughter at the expense of the Mariners — not the fans, but the team.
As for the match, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been shaping the U.S. program into a fluid, European-style squad and it showed on Tuesday. Quick passes, aggressive offensive players from all points of the pitch and threatening passes from the wings that test defenders and reward running forwards.
Altidore’s opening goal was a counter-attack run on the far right side, with Fabian Johnson sending the cross from the left. Bradley set up the play with a lead pass to Johnson and forward Clint Dempsey drew the defender away from Altidore to set up the play.
That was Altidore’s third goal in three straight matches and the Netherlands-based player is growing in confidence with each match played.
Eddie Johnson’s goal in the 53rd minute was the insurance marker the Yanks deserved. Panama only had spotty attacks on goalkeeper Tim Howard and his defenders, including Seattle’s Brad Evans.
Johnson, one of the Sounders goal-scoring forwards this season, deftly beat the Panama defense’s offside trap and deposited Geoff Cameron’s midfield pass into the lower left corner of the net for the 2-0 lead.
For the rest of the match, the Seattle chapter of the American Outlaws, the US National Team’s official supporters group, rhymed “We’re Going To Brazil” with every song they sang.
If Tuesday’s performance on the temporary pitch, as well as the support and atmosphere in the stadium, U.S. soccer officials should be singing, “We’re Coming Back to Seattle.”
Rob Burns is a Daily World sports writer. He can be reached at (360) 537-3926, via email at email@example.com and via Twitter at @RobRVR