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What the MLS Playoff Slate Says About U.S. Soccer

With roots stretching back to the North American Soccer League of the 1970s and fan groups including the Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC backing the Sounders in lower-tier leagues before their MLS debut, the Sounders represented an alternate path. They play in a city where only two of the other four major sports leagues have a presence. While quarterback Russell Wilson and the resurgent Seahawks have only elevated the city's already unwavering support of its NFL franchise, the Mariners' lack of playoff appearances, winning seasons and will to keep top players not named Felix Hernandez has dropped average attendance to roughly 21,700 a game at Safeco Field -- or about half of what the Sounders draw at CenturyLink Field right down the street.

While the Sounders have paid for star players including Sweden's Freddie Ljungberg and Colombia's Fredy Montero in the past, this year the Sounders started spending big money to match their big attendance figures. Using the league's designated-player rule that allows teams to sign big-ticket players that would otherwise shatter the league's salary cap, the Sounders spent roughly $7 million bringing in Nigerian forward Obafemi Martins and U.S. men's national team captain Clint Dempsey. The latter signing prompted an existential debate among the league's fans about MLS' future.

Some of the loudest criticism came from fans of the Sounders' Cascadia Cup rival Portland Timbers. Yet the most vocal Timbers backers weren't as angry that their team's turn to sign a U.S. national team player was skipped (it was), but that resorting to gimmick signings of high-profile players and having the league dictate where they landed was a return to the MLS' bad old days -- before it contracted two teams in Florida, moved a team in San Jose to Houston and placed aging stars in cities where it believed they'd be more visible. That the league's designated player policy is derisively called "the Beckham rule" -- for bringing Beckham and an ensuing string of stars and titles to Los Angeles -- is indicative of just how much the rule is loathed in certain, strengthening corners of the league.

In Portland, Timbers owner Merritt Paulson has paid nearly $700,000 to stack his team's midfield with designated players including Colombian Diego Chara and Argentine Diego Valeri. But blending a bunch of young, lower-priced pieces including goalkeeper and Jamaican national team captain Donovan Ricketts, Canadian midfielder Will Johnson and Ghanian midfielder Khalif Alhassan with a fervent fan base led by the song-singing, giant-banner-unfurling Timbers Army helped the team to the top of the Western Conference this year after missing the playoffs during its first two years in the league.
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