There are many reasons it’s tough to repeat as champions, but the Sounders have some motivation to prove it wasn’t just luck that landed them the MLS Cup.
To Garth Lagerwey, the Sounders’ general manager, this season will be a referendum of sorts on last year’s MLS Cup — the very one that was hoisted, in all its glory, by Zach Scott and Brad Evans on Sunday to show the properly boisterous CenturyLink crowd.
That was right before a banner commemorating the title was unfurled in the rafters, and the Sounders went out and made the day a complete success by whipping the New York Red Bulls, 3-1.
All week, Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer stressed the need to savor the moment and enjoy the spoils of victory, but then tuck away the pomp and circumstance to concentrate on the match at hand.
“It was kind of a trap game, in a sense,” Schmetzer said.
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Call this a trap season for the Sounders, in the way that every champion discovers. Once you win it all, you have to find new ways to summon the hunger. You must deal with teams coming at you, one after another, with the zeal that comes with trying to cut down the top dog. The chemistry that developed so beautifully in the previous year must be rediscovered, a task inevitably made harder by the trappings of success.
The Sounders are dealing with all that, while they simultaneously try to prove that they didn’t merely luck into their breakthrough crown last year.
“Our championship is going to be judged one of two ways,’’ Lagerwey mused earlier in the week. “Either historically it will be, well, they got hot, they got some bounces and they win in penalties in the final; it was kind of fluky and lucky.
“Or, it’s going to be, if we have a really good season this year, OK, that was just the beginning. That was the jumping-off point. It happened to start in the middle of a season, but they really built on that from there, and they took it and ran with it.
“So I think there’s actually a lot at stake this year from a credibility standpoint on how we’re regarded as an organization. Did we just get lightning in a bottle for four, five months, or can we sustain that success and take it to the next level?”
Those truths will reveal themselves slowly over the brutally long MLS season. But if the Sounders play like they did on Sunday, with verve and skill and dominance after two inconsistent games on the road, they have a realistic chance to defend the title. Or at least make a legitimate run at it.
No longer are they playing for their lives every match, as was the case last year when Schmetzer took over after Sigi Schmid’s firing with the Sounders buried in a deep hole.
“We literally had to win every game or else,’’ Lagerwey said. “There were 20 steps along the way where if we had dropped one of them, it was over. Everyone rallies together and that’s pretty easy. So you do have to reignite that hunger, reignite that fire when you head into the next season.”
To help foster that kind of energy, the Sounders turned over the roster to an extent, letting several veterans leave and bringing in young players they hope can help refuel that hunger. It is potentially a mix of youth and experience that will allow them to overcome the natural barriers to defending a title — but there will be pitfalls along the way that must be dealt with. That’s unavoidable.
Schmetzer believes in the chemistry that’s developing in this year’s team. He used his postgame news conference to heap praise on player after player, from Cristian Roldan (“I love that kid; I mean, I love the whole team, but he was great”) to newcomer Harry Shipp (“He’s very humble and hardworking, all the attributes I like in a player”) to Clint Dempsey (“What you saw out of Clint today is a guy who is fully bought in for the Seattle Sounders”), and just about everyone in between.
Shipp capped the scoring with a nifty redirection of a shot by Joevin Jones. Dempsey had started it with a penalty kick after a hustle play by Jordan Morris led to him being taken down in the box by Luis Robles. In between was a goal that brought a bright smile to Schmetzer’s face as he recalled the coordination among Jones, who shook free on the left side and gave it to Lodeiro, who fed a perfect pass to Jordan Morris, who finished it all with a header past the goalie.
“That was good soccer,’’ Schmetzer said with satisfaction.
The Sounders hope to play a lot of good soccer this year, removed from the urgency of saving their season on a nightly basis, but galvanized by the prospect of saving their reputation as a worthy champion.
“Today was a very good game, but it’s still a work in progress,’’ Schmetzer said. “We’re not going to crown us kings of this very competitive league yet, but I do think some of the potential that is there certainly puts us with all the top teams in our league. It’s just a matter of making sure we continue to work.”
In the trap-avoiding playbook, that’s at the top of the list.