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Are we inching closer to NFL crowds being the norm in Seattle?

Jun 9, 2013, 4:17 AM EDT

SEATTLE, Wash. – Sounders FC have become renown for their transcendent crowds, but their Major League Soccer-leading numbers always come with an implicit caveat. The team rarely opens up all sections of CenturyLink Field, the usual 38,500 capacity well below what the venue seats (67,000 for Seahawks games). On days when a Portland comes to town with four-digits worth of travelling fans, that normal limit can be pushed to exceed 40,000. But under normal circumstances, Seattle chooses to live within their self-defined limits.

On Saturday, Sounders FC loosened the reins, opened the gates and drew 53,679 for their 3-2 victory over the rival Whitecaps, the first of a four-pack of games that will pad the team’s already prodigious attendance numbers. The pack offers summer games against high-quality opponents for a price that targets the casual fan ($60 per pack), a combination that’s fueled Seattle’s NFL-esque numbers. Buyers also get access to playoff tickets.

“We love big crowds. We seem to do well,” Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid said after the game, his team improving to 5-0-0 in front of crowds of 50,000 or more. ” We wanted to keep the game exciting and close … It had a tremendous atmosphere.”

Last season, in games against Chelsea, LA Galaxy, Vancouver, and Portland, the Sounders drew 236,387 fans, more than Chivas USA, San Jose, or D.C. United collected over their entire 17-match MLS home schedules. And with no friendly on the schedule this season (Chelsea drew the lowest attendance of last year’s four-pack), Seattle could set a new standard for what looks set to become a mid-season tradition.

With that tradition, however, comes familiarity. While drawing over 50,000 to a Major League Soccer game is always noteworthy and come with an undeniably “tremendous” atmosphere, at some point, there’s no new story to tell. For a team that has played in front of five such crowds over the last three regular seasons, what would be record numbers for most teams becomes something that carries expectations.

“It’s a responsibility,” goalkeeper Michael Gspurning said after Seattle’s victory. “If so many [fans] are coming, we don’t want to disappoint them.”

The Sounders didn’t, though after poor defending on set pieces gave Camilo two first early goals, the team went into halftime down 2-1. But thanks to Servando Carrasco’s first career goal (a penalty kick) and Lamar Neagle’s late winner, Seattle won their fifth in sixth games. After an aimless start that saw the MLS Cup-aspirants spend March in the West’s cellar, Saturday’s win vaulted the Sounders into fourth place.

Whether the huge crowd actually had anything to do with result is impossible to say, but for those on the field, the atmosphere was mattered.

“You can sense the energy,” Schmid explained. “It gives you a different feeling when you walk onto the field. The guys recognize that and respond to that.

“Is that the reason that we score goals and win games entirely? Probably not, but right now we’ll keep it going.”

And they’ll have a chance to keep it going in front of what could be even bigger crowds. Last season, the highest attended game of the four-pack was the last one, and although their derby with Portland played a big part in drawing 66,452 people, it’s easy to see casual fans made aware of the special occasions gravitating to CenturyLink as the four-pack moves on.

“We were able to showcase ourselves in front of people who normally don’t get to come to our game,” Schmid said, describing the evening’s crowd. For a team that normally draws just short of 40,000, that meant entertaining over 10,000 people who would not have otherwise had access to tickets.

It forces you to consider: What would happen if Seattle opened the upper deck on a permanent basis? Yes, there are cost issues with staffing the upper level, and if you offer those cheaper seats, will people currently spending more of better seats gravitate toward the bargains? Regardless, with every huge crowd the question comes up: With the Sounders able to consistently break 50,000 for these games, why not go for that number on a regular basis?

This time of year, the weather is right. And with games against Portland, Real Salt Lake, and the LA Galaxy still to come, there is some reason to think that these particular games are predisposed to draw more. Would enough people come if Seattle were hosting an Eastern Conference bottom feeder in late winter?

That’s the worst-case scenario – an inappropriate standard for assessing Seattle’s drawing power. Instead, the better approach would be to look at the entire schedule and judge whether opening the upper deck all the time is cost-effective, something the Sounders have undoubtedly done. After Saturday’s big crowd, though, it remains to be seen whether Sounder nation is inching closer to a magic number that would see CenturyLink’s upper deck opened full-time.

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