Divergence: The Death of Kitsap Pumas

Two Roads…

A fork in the road is a metaphor that often makes it easy to differentiate between the correct decision and the wrong one in a given moral dilemma. It can also be used to describe the differing fortunes of similar organizations. It was 2009 and Kitsap Pumas, a semi-professional soccer club from the suburbs of Seattle faced off against that most hated team in that area, the Portland Timbers. This was not the Portland Timbers you know now, with the large crowds, the brilliant tifo, the culture of amazing support. This was the USL1 team, who played in front of their biggest crowd to that point (2,128) against this startup club from Kitsap who had nothing but a ticket to the 2nd Round on their mind. Kitsap Pumas lost but this matchup represented the divergence in fortunes between the clubs. Portland Timbers have gone on to worldwide prominence and recognition amongst the strongest franchises in Major League Soccer. Kitsap Pumas, on the other hand, are shutting down operations after ten years, and American soccer’s grief will be short-lived.

The death of a lower league club in the United States is often more akin to the death of a bird than something taken seriously. I cannot help but picture the episode of the American version of The Office when Dunder-Mifflin’s Scranton Branch holds a brief, if heartfelt funeral for a bird that flew into the window. Thus, Liviu Bird, the ironically named manager of Kitsap Pumas spoke almost exactly in tune with how people handle losses in the semi-professional game. “People talk to me as if somebody died, but clubs come and go at this level all the time.” The history of Kitsap Pumas is not so simple though, as this was not the typical flash in the pan type of club that Liviu refers to. There are clubs up and down the system in US Soccer that spring up and fold in the same year. This was an institution in Pacific Northwest lower division soccer that will be inevitably mourned by fans of quality soccer across the nation.

Kitsap Pumas was founded in 2009 by Robin Waite, a former minority owner of the Seattle Sounders before their move to Major League Soccer. At the outset, Pumas were not your typical lower division team. They did not want years of lower league anonymity, they did not want to dominate the youth soccer scene in a given area, or collect club dues. The Pumas were hell-bent on creating a competitive, professional club in the suburbs of Seattle. They began play in the United Soccer League’s Premier Development League (PDL) in 2009, making an immediate impact on the Pacific Northwest by defeating the reserves of the USL teams in the area, the Timbers and Sounders. The Pumas also began to have an impact at the PDL level, making the National Playoffs in the PDL five times and winning a PDL Championship in 2011. A club making waves like this could be impactful in a different system but why has such a high-profile semiprofessional club like this just died?

Professionalism or Death

There is nothing that could emphasize the ambition of a club like Kitsap Pumas quite like the idea that the current manager, Liviu Bird, was recruited to manage from a job writing for Sports Illustrated. That is an incredible statement, with Liviu leaving his job at one of the most read sports publications on the planet for the manager job at Pumas. This club was not another amateur set up, or a youth club that wanted to field a first team. This club had legitimate ambitions. “The goal was always USL,” added Bird. “We started as a professional PDL team with the idea that as the league expands and has a heavier West Coast presence that we would jump into that league.”

The club supported those ambitions by maintaining a semi-professional presence and recruiting fantastic players out of the Seattle area. They saw that area in USL as their niche. They could be the “other professional soccer team” near Seattle. This did not work how they wanted to however, with the club facing another proverbial fork in the road in the 2011 US Open Cup. Pumas had earned a 3rd Round berth, and were facing the Seattle Sounders, who had just made the move to MLS from the original iteration of the USL. Sounders defeated Pumas in the Cup and in the intervening years, rather than Pumas moving to USL, it was a Seattle Sounders Reserve team that made the move. This began to represent a pattern in the Pacific Northwest, the local team was being shut out by the “major league” team.

“The Soccer environment here is pretty toxic,” Bird added when pressed. This line, while seemingly general, says quite a bit about the literal State of soccer in Washington. He went on to say that once the promise of movement to a professional division of US Soccer was off the table, “The community stopped caring after awhile.” This apathy towards Kitsap seems out of character given the reputation of soccer culture in the Pacific Northwest. It is often hailed as a haven of the sport and a vibrant supporter culture due to the support for the MLS clubs in the area. However, this has not translated to success for clubs in the lower divisions. A spokesman for Kitsap Pumas’ supporters group highlighted some of the issues in the Seattle area. “The Seattle pro sports teams pull away entertainment [money] from here. There have been a pro basketball team, a summer baseball team for college players…and a couple junior hockey teams that have folded due to lack of attendance.” The reputation that supporters earned at the professional level has so far not extended to the lower division clubs in the area.

Random Guys in New Orleans

This proclivity of American consumers to favor professional teams despite their being more local options seemingly flies counter to modern trends. The stereotype is quite the opposite when it comes to the Pacific Northwest. However, due to the nature of this business, the impact of supporting a professional team about an hour and a half away instead of the local option is often greater than supporters are willing to hear. The impact could be the club ceasing to exist.

This is where the story enters the realm of the surreal. Bird attended the NPSL Annual General Meeting and had the “We were in New Orleans and obviously a real party atmosphere. There was a stilt-walker who told me ‘Oh, I’ve heard of the Kitsap Pumas, I’ve heard of you guys. My brother’s from Portland and he told me about you guys.’” The support and adoration of many lower division sides comes from outside the area that can really affect their situation. The power of social media can drive popularity and interest for clubs, but ultimately the community will decide their fate. Kitsap decided the Pumas’ fate.

“Although we weren’t getting a lot of fans, and weren’t making tons of money, it still made sense and we were still getting something out of it. That’s not really the case anymore.” There are professionals across American soccer that have constantly sacrificed time, money, and sweat trying to provide players and coaches with more opportunities. For many team owners below the professional level, this is a passion. The reward is not material, but it is in the people who can be given a shot to pursue their dreams. “This club has helped me grow as a player, as a coach, as a person. I wouldn’t even be coaching if it weren’t for this club.” That quote from Liviu Bird highlights why clubs like Kitsap Pumas need local support, and why it is a shame that the club is shutting its doors.

Lower league American soccer is not in trouble due to the demise of Kitsap Pumas. That is the good news. The bad news is that one of the iconic lower division clubs is shutting its doors. Other clubs will step up, the void will eventually be filled, but there is now a gap of opportunity that exists west of Seattle. Clubs like Pumas will continue to stop operations if the support does not exist. Rather, help create memories like Kitsap Pumas have given to us. “It would take me many, many hours to describe all the experiences and memories that I have but there are highlights I will take with me forever,” Bird reminisced. Kitsap Pumas, thank you for those memories.

- Phil Baki

Lola Vaughn