1996 – Around the World and Close to Home
The FBI arrests suspected Unabomber, Madeline Albright is appointed the first female U.S. Secretary of State, and Internet usage rises to 45 million worldwide, including 30 million in U.S. and Canada. In Washington, Gary Locke is the first Asian American to be elected a U.S. governor, Aberdeen native Douglas Osheroff is co-winner of Nobel Prize for Physics, and the Seattle Sonics fall to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.
They Shall Overcome
Of sporting achievements, winning a championship ranks as the most difficult, perhaps surpassed only by the feat of repeating. In 1996, the Seattle Sounders stamp their name on the A-League championship trophy, doing so against all odds and with all the panache of a body punch. It was gritty, not pretty.
The Sounders had won their first A-League title in spectacular fashion the year before. Yet in very short order they had lost five starters from the ’95 final. Four were snatched by MLS, which was beginning play in 1996, including league MVP and Golden Boot winner Peter Hattrup. Ownership also slashes pay to most of the returnees, and six weeks prior to the preseason, coach Alan Hinton retires and is replaced by Neil Megson, his top assistant and captain.
The transition leaves Seattle relatively inexperienced, however there is a foundation of veterans on which to build. Megson, assistant coach Bernie James and fellow defender Bill Crook have played a combined 32 seasons indoors. All are former NASL Sounders, along with striker Chance Fry. One youngster playing at a level beyond his years is stationed in goal: 24-year-old Marcus Hahnemann.
Out of the gate, Fry and the Sounders are on fire. He scores six goals as Seattle quickly wins six of seven matches. Then things unravel. A gruesome leg fracture in Atlanta finishes Fry for the season. Seattle goes into a tailspin, scoring just 10 goals while losing nine of the next 12.
“It was devastating,” says Jason Farrell. “Here’s a guy (Fry) who battled for us. Losing him was obviously a huge loss on the field and in the locker room, but I think it may have galvanized the team.”
The turnaround finally comes after two tortuous months, beginning with a late Joey Leonetti winner at New York. Hahnemann and the backline weave together four consecutive clean sheets, and the Sounders regain their footing, winning seven of the final eight regular season games.
Seattle upsets Colorado in the semifinal round, winning the deciding game away, 3-0, in a freak September snowstorm. That also earns home-field advantage for the final, and more than 7,000 come to Memorial Stadium to see two late goals from Leonetti to claim the championship over Rochester, 2-0.
“It was a steel-city, hard-working team that grinded out results,” Megson says. “Everybody had written us off. Everybody. But we had a tremendous work ethic, we found a system, stuck to it and in the end it paid dividends.”
“When that season ended with a championship, it was against all odds,” Webber maintains. “There was a sense of finality about it. Ninety-six was the beginning of that transformation, becoming minor league.”
Truly, it is the end of an era. Nine of the starters would move along Webber, Hahnemann and Webber to MLS. Beyond winning titles, Megson’s mission going forward was to push more players to that level.