Sounders FC, MLS seeking mass appeal

Even Sounders FC had to look on in envy last weekend when a crowd of 50,305 showed up at Qwest Field to watch the Mexican national team’s friendly against Ecuador.

That’s about 15,000 more than the typical home crowd attracted by the Major League Soccer attendance leader. And so the question naturally follows: Could the Sounders boost their own ticket sales by signing Mexican players?

“We’ve definitely talked about it,” general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “We’re not blind to the fact that football for the Mexican-Americans, it’s a duty to support their teams and the Mexican national team in particular. And we certainly have looked at Mexican players over the years. But we have to find the right player. What we’ve always said is we’re not going to pander to any ethnicity, whether it’s Mexican, Russian, Ethiopian, Japanese or German. And we’re always going to err on the side of just trying to find the right players that fit our team, our system, our ethics.”

Even if the Sounders were in a pandering mood: Would it work?

One test case exists in Chicago, where the Sounders will face the Fire on Saturday.

From 2007-09, Chicago was home to Cuauhtemoc Blanco, one of Mexico’s most successful, colorful and charismatic players.

Did he drive attendance?

Over 13 full seasons of existence, the Fire drew an average of 15,638 fans at home and 15,773 away. Over Blanco’s three seasons, the numbers grew to 16,071 at home, and 17,598 away.

In the season before Blanco’s arrival, the Fire averaged 14,411 at home and 13,353 away. In his first season, those numbers grew to 16,490 and 17,418.

By Blanco’s final season, home attendance dropped to 14,689, but road crowds grew to 17,733. In fact, Blanco’s three seasons in Chicago all rank among the club’s top four seasons in road attendance. In 2010, with Blanco gone, the road average dropped to 16,870.

“Absolutely, some people go to see some specific players – the more well-known players – and it doesn’t necessarily matter who the team is that they’re playing or the team that they’re playing for,” former Mexican national team goaltender Jorge Campos said through a translator on a recent visit to Seattle. “Sometimes, if there are great players, you go to see the players, and you end up seeing the team, too.”

Still, shifting the attention of Mexican and Mexican-American soccer fans north of the border isn’t easy.

Among the four MLS teams in cities closest to the Mexico border and with some of the largest Mexican-American populations, only the Los Angeles Galaxy ranks among the league’s attendance leaders – trailing only Seattle with an average of 22,823 fans per home game. Meanwhile, Houston (17,488) and Chivas USA (17,118) draw around the league average (17,478), while Dallas (13,835) is near the bottom.

The Chivas experience is especially telling, because no club in MLS has more obvious ties to Mexico – sharing the Chivas de Guadalajara brand, and including four players who played last season in Mexico. Yet the Galaxy outdraws Chivas by more than 5,700 fans per home game, despite using the same stadium, while featuring stars such as Landon Donovan of the USA and David Beckham of England.

Clearly, whatever allows the Mexican national team to draw NFL-sized crowds in the United States does not automatically transfer to Mexican players wearing MLS colors.

“I think with the national team, it’s that sense of identity, that sense of being part of something much, much bigger than yourself,” said Sounders rookie Servando Carrasco, who was born in San Diego but grew up in Tijuana and has dual citizenship. “I think that’s what a national team brings.”

It is the lesson U.S. professional teams have been learning for decades.

“In the old days of the L.A. Aztecs in the NASL they went and played at East L.A. College and we didn’t draw any fans,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “So then you brought in Mexican players – and we did that with the Galaxy as well. It spiked the attendance for two or three games, and then it went right back down to normal. The thing that I think was done well (in Seattle) was the approach was never ‘Let’s get this player, and that will bring in some fans.’ ”

Even if the Sounders did change that philosophy, there would be a question of which international loyalties to target. Fans of Mexican soccer certainly showed their numbers last week. But in this market it might prove more profitable to target the Pacific Rim – someone who might do for the Sounders what Ichiro has done for the Mariners.

There should be no lack of choices. MLS began this season with 390 foreign-born players representing 56 other countries. Nine were from Mexico – fewer than from Canada (23), Brazil (15), Colombia (15), England (12) and Jamaica (12).

The foreign country most represented on the Sounders’ roster is Colombia – home to Fredy Montero, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Miguel Montano.

“There’s not a really big Colombian community in the Seattle area, but I have the good fortune of having a lot of people around me – Colombians who support me and who are happy for the work that I’m doing for the team,” Montero said through an interpreter. “And I’m also happy that I’m seeing more and more Colombian flags in the stadium.”

The cluster of Colombians wearing rave green has grown naturally as part of the Sounders’ strategy that the international nature of soccer is a benefit. It adds color, passion, loyalties and a diversity of playing styles.

“I’ve heard it from fans: ‘Well, if you had a Honduran guy on your team, then we’d come out,’ ” Schmid said. “Well, we want fans of the team, we want fans of the club, we want fans of the city and what we’re trying to build. It’s great if you have somebody from your nationality or your home country, but on the same token, if that’s the only reason you’re supporting the team, then you’re not supporting the team, you’re supporting the individual.

“And I think at the end of the day, success in MLS is going to depend on team support and not individual support.”

Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808 twitter/donruiztnt