Wednesday, April 14, 2010

SOUNDERS FC: On site at Rio Tinto Stadium

Covering this game was a last minute decision. I knew for weeks that the Sounders would be playing Real Salt Lake, the recently crowned 2009 MLS champions. I had no intention of participating besides watching the television broadcast and maybe writing a game recap.

Sounders fans show their pride on the road.

To Continue...

Mother Nature had different plans and dangled the carrot of a 50-year snow storm in the Park City area, which deposited about eight feet of snow on the former Winter Olympic host-city. To sweeten the deal, I had an offer from some friends in the area to let me sleep on their couch.

With the promise of watching quality soccer and riding some of the country’s best ski slopes, the most important decision I had to make was if I should fly into Salt Lake City, or drive 847 miles one way, about 14 hours by Interstate, from Seattle to Utah. Since I've had bad luck with snowboards and airline travel in the past, I decided to pack up the van and head toward the home of the league champions.

Fast-forward three days to Saturday and the first thing I noticed about Rio Tinto stadium was the reasonable parking prices; $5 bought a spot on the same block, $10 for a stall right next-door. Once we began the trek to the stadium, another thought crossed my mind.

Compared to Qwest Field, RSL's stadium location is far from pedestrian friendly. Crosswalks are few and far between, and Sandy, the actual hometown for RSL, is approximately 20 minutes south of Salt Lake. That said, about 20,000 fans decked out in crimson made the drive, arriving shortly before sunset.

Once you get over the déjà vu of standing on the same aluminum bleacher-type structure that your high school had, you start to appreciate the setting. Mountains surround the stadium, creating a picturesque backdrop and as the sun dips behind them, Rio Tinto is bathed in a golden glow. The stadium might not be in the correct city, ala the L.A. Angels of Anaheim, but the view from the stadium at sunset is worth the confusion.

After taking our seats in the ECS supporter's section (you really thought we'd sit anywhere else?) we had an opportunity to see just what the fans in Utah are made of. The supporters section is quite small compared to Qwest, but once RSL tied the score at 1-1, they blew up, almost literally.

Ever seen smoke bombs at Qwest? Didn't think so. Sounders fans are known to throw paper streamers onto the field, but I've yet to see them throw it at the opposing keeper during a corner kick attempt. RSL supporters do. They seem passionate and grassroots in their support, but also have some practicing to do.

With the score tied at 1-1, one of the RSL supporters groups unfurled a large, dark blue sheet. I discovered later, when the score was again tied, that the blue sheet was actually a giant RSL banner, only this time, it was facing the stadium, not the seats.

By comparison, the visiting ECS seemed quite professional and continued their chanting and drumming for nearly the entire game. After half-time, before the RSL supporters had returned to their seats in the southern end of the stadium, the ECS were already singing away.

If you've watched a game at Qwest, you've undoubtedly noticed the abundance of signs, banners and flags, primarily in the Brougham End, but sprinkled throughout the stadium. Not so at Rio Tinto. No banners. No signs. Flags only really came out when a goal was scored. Like Qwest, the majority of the fans are excited, but subdued. They stand, cheer, and occasionally break into song. In Utah, the only standing comes from a goal. Singing and signs are reserved for the supporter's sections.

The Sounders might want to take some lessons from RSL on winning a league championship, but on a brisk, dry night in Sandy, Utah, the ECS proved what everyone in MLS already knew. In Seattle, we dig soccer.

Reach Galen Helmgren at