Soccer-crazy Seattle set for World Cup qualifier

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Seattle • Clint Dempsey was strolling downtown to find dinner Saturday night and noticed through the windows of crowded bars that TVs were set to the Seattle Sounders match.

"I felt like I was in another country," said Dempsey, a U.S. national team attacker from east Texas who lives most of the year in soccer-obsessed London playing for Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur.

Seattle is known for coffee and music, waterways and natural beauty. It is also fast becoming known as America's soccer city.

And for the first time since the Sounders joined MLS in 2009 and began obliterating the league's attendance records, the Emerald City will host a World Cup qualifier at CenturyLink Field. On Tuesday night, with an expected 37,000 in attendance, the United States (2-1-1) will hit the midway point of the final round by hosting Panama (1-0-3).

Seattle has been waiting a long time for this. Despite being an obvious choice to host U.S. matches, the city was passed over year after year because CenturyLink's surface is artificial turf.

FIFA, the sport's world governing body, does not prohibit games from being played on such fields. Even with advances in replicating natural grass the past decade, however, coaches and players still do not like it. Until Seattle switched to a natural field — something the stadium's other tenants, the NFL's Seahawks, were against — the U.S. Soccer Federation would look elsewhere to stage games.

But then this year, eager to capitalize on Seattle's soccer rage, the USSF decided to install natural grass over the turf in order to play an important match here. At a cost of more than $100,000, the new surface was laid out last week and received its first test Saturday night when the Sounders defeated the Vancouver Whitecaps, 3-2.

Vancouver players offered mixed reviews Saturday, but Dempsey and Coach Juergen Klinsmann did not have any major complaints after the team's first workout Sunday. —

United States vs. Panama

P Tuesday, 8 p.m.