A Lesson From Adrian Hanauer

The Sounders have been present in the Seattle sports landscape for decades. Before our beloved Mariners and Seahawks, fans would crowd into Memorial Stadium and the Kingdome to see the Blue and Green play the world’s game as a member of the North American Soccer League, stretching from the mid 70s to 80s. Over the ten-year period in the league, the franchise averaged 18,307 people in attendance. That number today would rank sixth in the MLS. There even was a 58,218-person turnout to christen the Kingdome when the Cosmos came to town. Seattle has always been a soccer town. The true spirit of Seattle fan-ship is displayed in the early years of the Sounders. Soccer was practically an unknown in America at the time and the Emerald City welcomed it with open arms, just as it has done with every other sports team that has made it’s way here. Through the years our city has seen the Sounders come and go, but everything changed in 2009.

The I-5 Rivalry: One of the league's best rivalries, which is between Seattle and Portland.

After years of dominance in the United Soccer League, the Sounders had the privilege of joining the MLS. It quickly became the hottest ticket in town, selling all 22,000 season ticket packages in their inaugural season, which was the most in the league. Also that year, the organization set an MLS attendance record of 30,943 fans per game. Every game that year was a sell out. On top of this incredible buzz, the new expansion team was actually quite good, making it to the conference semifinals in the MLS playoffs. From then until now not much has changed. The squad is one of the best in the league and the newly named Century-Link Field regularly houses 36,000 of the most spirited soccer fans in the country. But the real beauty of the franchise isn’t just the large crowds or quality style of play; it’s what happens behind the scenes. It’s the people who are in charge of piecing together this goal scoring, ticket selling machine: the management.

Led by majority owner Joe Roth and minority owners Adrian Hanauer, Paul Allen, and Drew Carey, these men have developed a winning formula on the pitch and in the front office; something hard to come by in this city.

General Manager Adrian Hanauer on the left and Head Coach Sigi Schmid on the right. A winning combination.

These four individuals have brought creativity and ingenuity to a team who is a member of a league that is straining to catch up to its counterparts abroad.  One of the most unique aspects about the Sounders is its “Alliance,” which is composed of all season ticket holders and others who are willing to pay a small fee. What the “Alliance” brings is the ability for the fans to have a voice. To let management know when they are happy or upset with the product that is being put on the field. Every four years the organization puts power into the hands of its supporters, allowing them to vote on whether to retain or get rid of the current general manager. This system has been very successful at soccer giants around the globe, including Real Madrid and F.C. Barcelona. The Sounders are hoping for the same results. As for the general manager who will sweat it out when November 2012 rolls around, I don’t think he has much to worry about.

Adrian Hanauer has no professional soccer experience, but he has a knack for successful business. Hanauer has been with the Sounders since 2002, when he joined as a managing partner for the USL side. Ever since he has been affiliated with the organization, he has been able to cut financial losses. Over his first 5 years, the club’s losses were cut by a whopping 65%. And it didn’t even come with a drop off of on-field production. The USL Sounders won two league titles and finished first place in the standings 4 times over the 8 years that Hanauer was in Seattle. He was a perfect fit, so why not ask him to be General Manager of the new Sounders FC of the MLS?

The excitement surrounding the new and improved Green and Blue in 2009 was overwhelming. They were finally back in the spotlight. The upper echelon of soccer in America. The inaugural season in the MLS… Little did we know that Hanauer had been piecing together an impressive squad all offseason. What he did first was sign Sigi Schmid (Oi Oi Oi!) who’s impressive resume included two MLS Cups and the most wins as a manager in MLS history. He then surrounded Schmid with talented assistants. Brian Schmetzer, who coached the USL Sounders from 2002-2008 was brought aboard and so was veteran MLS defender, Ezra Hendrickson. That’s an all-star lineup of coaches if you ask me. To make matters even better, Hanauer got national soccer icon and hometown hero Kasey Keller to put pen to paper, making him the cornerstone of the franchise. Other diamonds in the rough emerged. The speedy winger Steve Zakuani was selected with the number one pick in that year’s SuperDraft. He has been a bright spot ever since for the Rave Green. They also lucked out in receiving a young Columbian starlet on loan by the name of Fredy Montero, who is now a household name in Seattle. The Sounders beat out the likes of Spanish side Real Betis for his services and bought his rights after that first season. Another Columbian who was also loaned to Seattle from the same team as Montero is now a fan favorite and is known to the Sounders faithful as “El Presidente.” I am talking about the powerful center back Jhon Kennedy Hurtado. Last of all, and quite possibly the most valuable piece of Adrian’s puzzle was the acquisition of Osvaldo Alonso. The “do-it-all” Cuban defect was scooped up from USL side Charleston Battery and, in my honest opinion, has been the best player the Sounders have fielded. A true box-to-box player, “Ozzie” is the moderator in the middle. He has great tackling abilities and can take one hell of a rip from the top of the box. I will say it now: he is the most underrated player in the MLS. So, the new side found itself with a nice assortment of talent, but Adrian wasn’t finished.

Osvaldo Alonso against the world's best.

Over the last few seasons, Hanauer has brought in several other players to accompany the group of originals that I listed above. Alvaro Fernandez was signed in the summer of 2010 and has since become a mainstay at the right midfield position. Energetic forward Mike Fucito has fought his way into the starting lineup after being drafted in the fourth round of the SuperDraft in 2009. Mauro Rosales, Erik Friberg, and Lamar Neagle have all seen significant starting minutes after being acquired this season. As for Rosales’ case, it is a fair argument to say that he is one of the best players on the team, while only earning the minimum league salary of $40k. Talk about a bargain. Then to round out the squad you have the veterans from the USL Sounder days in Roger Levesque and Zach Scott.

The blueprint that has been laid out by Hanauer is impressive. The Sounders have found success on the field ever since joining the MLS and that is no different than what can be seen this season. They can be found in second place in the Western Conference, as well as second in the overall MLS standings. They have also bagged the most goals thus far, snapped Real Salt Lake’s 29-game home winning streak, and have won their third straight U.S. Open Cup. The regular season is coming to a close and a playoff run seems all but imminent. We will celebrate a close to a fantastic career in the likes of Kasey Keller, who’s final home match has already sold 55,000 tickets with a week left until the first whistle is blown. The amount of support for this team is through the roof.

Seattle sports fans are starving for a winner, and that is what Hanauer has provided with the Sounders. Over the past few years we have all endured a myriad of losses, whether it be from the Seahawks, Mariners, or Husky Football. The Sounders have been one of the few bright spots in a rather dull sports scene. Now if only others could replicate their successes. Local GM’s take note. The Sounders have a winning formula.


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