It’s a Nice Day for a Red Card Wedding*

By Stephanie Steiner
Photo: Sounder at Heart

It was June 16, 2015 on a gorgeous summer evening at Starfire Sports Complex. There aren’t very many better ways to spend a summer evening than with a beautiful clear sky, a gentle breeze, a great beer garden, and some badass footy about to happen on the pitch right in front of you. Parking sucked, the enemy was in our fair city, and trains were rolling by. It was perfect. And then it wasn’t.

The center referee was Daniel Radford. I didn’t know enough yet to hate him. The front office staff had already challenged his experience earlier in the week, but I wasn’t overly concerned – this was Open Cup and there were typically a lot of guys on the pitch without a ton of experience. I had my hot dog, I had my beverage, I had my friends, and I had a great view. Let’s fucking go.

The procession began and… wait wait wait! – we have two dark teams on a dark green turf. Even while it was daylight, it wasn’t easy to distinguish Sounders from the Termites. As it got darker, it became more difficult to see who was who. Was this ref confused? His calls were not making sense. Radford, quite simply, was a mess. He was nitpicking strange things: throw-ins for instance. He made people start over. He called things back. He made very tough calls over embellishments and flops. He was micromanaging the smallest pebbles when he should have been paying attention to the avalanche. It was laughable except there was nothing funny about it. It was a disaster. Tempers were getting hotter and about to blow.

Halftime: Sounders changed into white jerseys to help our boys see each other on the pitch. Portland had come to Seattle with only their green kits. I’m not sure this helped Radford, but it did help us in the stands.

49th Minute: The Termites score. Rodney Wallace gets one by Troy Perkins.

69th Minute: Brad Evans received his second yellow over nothing. Daniel Radford, had he had the experience of a seasoned referee should have controlled the match with some reason. Instead, he tried to control the match with penalty cards. Now, we’re down our Sheriff: Brad Evans is out of the match over an absolute joke call.

Brad sloooooowly walks off the pitch.

Sounders’ Obafemi Martins immediately scores to bring us even 1-1.

85th Minute: Play resumes and the unthinkable happens: there’s a tangle at midfield and Oba goes down and stays down. He lifts his head up to call for help, and though none of us in the stands can hear it, we know this is bad. Radford, in the only good action he took all night calls for team trainers who eventually get medical staff. Oba is taken off the field on a gurney. Seattle had just used the third and final substitute – we’re now down to nine men on the pitch and heading to overtime. What a night. Can’t we get a new center ref in extra time?

100th minute: Rodney Wallace again: BLAM! Another goal for the Termites.

112th minute: Michael Azira wins a ball (Fernandez flops – the effing effer) and for his efforts, Azira is accused of tossing an elbow: red card, ejected. Seattle has eight men on the pitch. Seattle has eight men on the pitch. Ross Fletcher called the match that night and in amazement announced, “Seattle will end this game WITH. EIGHT. MEN.” Oh Ross. You were so wrong. We all were.

At this point, members of both teams are walking around on the turf, waiting for Azira to exit and waiting for FishFlopFernandez to get his sorry ass up. I might be showing my personal views, but I don’t care (my heart rate is up as I type this out, too). Anyway, all of a sudden, Radford shoots up another yellow like he’s some kind of pop-up clown! What is going on now? Pop! Another card! Pop! Another card! Dempsey got a yellow card for walking by. Now, I’m not naïve, so I’m going to assume that walk included colorful language which generated the yellow. And then: ZING: a RED. Finally, a red card was earned! Click the link to the video and halfway through it you see Clint Dempsey pick up Daniel Radford’s book and rip it up. Clint Dempsey tore up the referee’s book! I remember that glorious moment.

Some people say Clint Dempsey lost his mind, but I think he found it. I think he felt the accumulated angst and frustration of all of us in Sounderland that night and he did what he needed to do for us.

Jack in the Box child's toy

Pro Referees Official Photo of Daniel Radford

Only fourteen seconds had passed; it was still the 112th minute. Now Dempsey had been issued a red card and ejection. Head Coach Sigi Schmidt was standing over in the corner – our head coach had separated himself from the bench: he’s away from all officials. I feel ya’ Sig. I get it. At this point, there’s pushing and shoving on the pitch. Dempsey wanted to speak his mind with Radford.

Sounders were stepping in. The crowd was getting louder and louder, and a water bottle landed about five feet onto the pitch. Seattle had only seven men left to play. Portland was still at eleven. The score was 1-2, Portland. Ty Mears, Andy Rose, and Chad Marshall all helped Clint make his way to the sideline.

116th minute: Max Urruti scored again for Portland and the Termites celebrated the goal. They were still wildly celebratory when their opponent had only seven men on the pitch. That’s insane. That’s rivalry.

Three and a half minutes later the final whistle blew: our Open Cup hopes were smashed that year. A police escort got Radford out of the area, that jackass.

police car with lights flashing

Photo by Martin Buckley

Trash cans were overturned onto the pitch. Soda cups landed on the turf, along with more water bottles. We all know not to throw stuff onto the pitch: every single one of us knows that. The emotional outrage was so strong, that some of us couldn’t control the force of the energy. I’m not better than any person who let loose; I just didn’t have anything that I was willing to part with.

Over the coming weeks, Clint Dempsey was vilified in social media for putting his Club in jeopardy. We didn’t have Oba, and because of his own actions, we didn’t have Clint’s striking capacity for a while either. He was blamed for our losing streak. He lost his captaincy of the U.S. Men’s National Team. He was suspended several matches of U.S. play (six matches or two years of play, whichever was greater).

I understand why people were livid with Clint, but I think what we gained outweighs what we lost. We, as fans, walked in expecting to win this match – I know I did. We gained renewed interest in a rivalry which had grown a tad ho-hum. We gained a villain. Dempsey had a reputation for being a bad boy, but he showed the world he was our bad boy: unpredictable, hot-headed, and man of the people. He actually did what every Sounders fan in that stadium wanted to do. He didn’t just breathe new life into a rivalry, he inflated it with fire.

Post-match, the Clap Clap Clap Sounders ! chant went on forever, and it boomed. We wanted Oba to hear us on the exam table. We wanted those Termites to hear us as they left in their bus. I remember watching the flashing lights of the police escort as it made its way out toward Fort Dent Way: my chest was tight with pride and we were still chanting. We wanted Radford to hear us all the way to the fucking airport.

As much as the 2015 season was painful, Red Card Wedding is now Sounders lore. Dempsey’s actions have become legendary. It’s unlikely we’ll remember ten years from now why Azira got a red card, perhaps not even our own Sherriff. But Clint: tearing up a referee’s book is now historical. This is the kind of match that four thousand people attended and twenty-five thousand will say they did: the stories have been recounted so many times that people think they remember being there. It was that good.

*Red Wedding is an episode of the HBO series Game of Thrones, in which nearly everyone in one beloved family dies. A few seasons later, the family returns to greatness. Red Card Wedding is a fabulous and apt reference.