There’s a privilege only a few Major League Soccer teams get to enjoy. On the cusp of a first-round playoff match, the Sounders get to reflect on past championship runs, and draw on the invaluable experience of them.
Since their inception in 2009, the Rave Green lead MLS in total championships since 2009. The seven include two MLS Cup trophies (2016 and 2019), a Supporters’ Shield in 2014 and four U.S. Open Cup titles (2009-2011 and 2014).
It’s a haul that makes Sounders co-captain Nico Lodeiro hungry for more. “We always have to be motivated because we are representing a great team in the MLS,” he said.
Since joining the club in 2016, Lodeiro has helped the Sounders continue their run of never finishing lower than fourth place in the Western Conference standings. And Seattle’s stellar run includes a league-leading 12 consecutive playoff berths, with the team advancing to the league finals in three of the past four seasons.
Considering all of that hardware and statistical dominance, the Sounders are basically competing to top themselves. And this season many believe the 2020 roster will show it’s the best compiled in franchise history.
“Everybody expects Seattle to be the favorites in the Western Conference,” said Matthew Doyle, a senior writer the past decade for MLSsoccer.com. “They have that kind of talent, they have that kind of pedigree. And come this time of year, more often than not, they are the ones who show up and really make you beat them. They don’t gift you anything in the playoffs.”
Seattle (11-5-6), the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, opens this postseason by hosting the seventh-seeded Los Angeles FC (9-8-5) at the newly renamed Lumen Field on Tuesday. ESPN is broadcasting the match, with the kickoff slated for 7:30 p.m. PST.
So how does this year’s team compare to the club’s past championship teams?
‘Difficult to establish momentum’
An easy critique of the 2020 postseason is this moment. With the 2016 and 2019 squads, the Sounders were electric entering the postseason.
For the first championship run, a star-studded roster led by Clint Dempsey, Brad Evans and Ozzie Alonzo slogged through a losing first half of the season with Zach Scott and Nelson Valdez playing roles to keep the locker room together.
Lodeiro’s signing in July 2016 was a jolt, as the club only lost once to close the regular season. The Sounders defeated Toronto FC for the title in epic fashion. Defender Roman Torres provided the heroics, scoring the winning penalty kick on a cold December night in Canada.
Last year, a host of Sounders players returned from a September international break to go unbeaten in four of their final five regular-season matches. MLS changed the postseason format to single-elimination, with Seattle needing to finish second in the West in order to secure home-field advantage throughout the conference semifinals.
Torres had the game-winning goal against Minnesota United FC at then-CenturyLink Field, causing the crowd of 47,297 to erupt. The club only lost twice at home during the MLS season.
“We kind of haven’t been able to get into the playoffs with as much momentum as we have in the past,” said Sounders keeper Stefan Frei, who was in goal for the past two titles, and secured the biggest save in team history in the 2016 MLS Cup. “But it’s been difficult to establish momentum this year anyway with the way the schedule has unfolded. Maybe in the playoffs there is some momentum to be found for us. We have a big test in the first game. If we can achieve what we’re going to be setting out to do in that first game, that will give us some confidence to hopefully coax the best out of this squad because it is a really good squad.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, MLS has had three starts to its season. The league shutdown in March to help slow the spread of the virus after its 26 teams played two matches apiece.
It resumed play in July with a tournament in Florida. The Sounders were embarrassingly knocked out by LAFC in the Round of 16, watching from home as Cascadia rival Portland won the championship.
MLS reworked a conclusion to a regular season that started in August, but has canceled or postponed 11 matches. The Sounders had a home match against the Colorado Rapids canceled due to an outbreak among that club. Forward Raul Ruidiaz contracted the virus in October while with his Peru national team and the Sounders recently announced a member of its staff tested positive for COVID-19, but the team has been able to continue training.
“It feels like a long season, like a long year,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said during a recent video conference call. “It feels like we’ve had three preseasons. It feels weird to have the MLS Cup back in December, again. It’s been a weird year and I don’t know if you can quantify it, yet. There’s just too many weird things that have happened and it’s been tough.”
MOST TROPHIES SINCE 2009
TEAM MLS CUP, SHIELD, USOC, TOTAL
Sounders FC 2 1 4 7
LA Galaxy 3 2 0 5
Sporting KC 1 0 2 3
Toronto FC 1 1 0 2+
NY Red Bulls 0 1 0 2
FC Dallas 0 1 1 2
Montreal Impact 0 0 2 2
‘An influential player’
Lodeiro, forward Jordan Morris and Ruidiaz were named to MLS’s Best XI squad on Friday. It marked the first time the club had three players named in the same season.
The melding of the trio — which led the Sounders to a second-best goal differential (21) — is the leading reason why Seattle is always favored to win titles. Ruidiaz, who had a club-leading 12 goals this year, was signed in June 2018.
But it’s actually the defensive line that stands out as the difference-maker for the Sounders in the postseason.
In 2016, it was a peak Chad Marshall and Alonzo along with Torres’ key performance in the title game that gave Seattle an edge. Last year, it was Xavier Arreaga, who was signed in May 2019, who had his best match to date against LAFC to help Seattle upset the Supporters’ Shield winners to win the Western Conference championship at Banc of California Stadium.
The Sounders entered this past offseason nearly depleted at the position. Aside from Arreaga, right full back Kelvin Leerdam and defensive midfielders Gustav Svensson and Jordy Delem were the only returnees who made significant contributions.
Nouhou had an inconsistent 2019 season and the Sounders lost Marshall (retirement) and left full back Brad Smith (loan expired). The club allowed contracts to expire for center backs Kim Kee-hee and Torres, and defender Saad Abdul-Salaam.
But enter center back Yeimar Gómez Andrade to complement Nouhou’s best season at left full back. Yeimar, a Colombian, was signed in February on the heels of another Designated Player signing in January in Joao Paulo, a Brazilian midfielder who’s crafty on both sides of the ball.
“They hit the jackpot with two big signings,” said former Sounders winger Steve Zakuani, who’s currently a team broadcaster. “Yeimar came in and he looks like he’s played here for 10 years and the same for Joao Paulo. Sometimes you can bring in big players and they can mess up the chemistry. Those two have made it better.”
As general manager of Real Salt Lake, Garth Lagerwey signed Jamison Olave, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound Colombian, in February 2008. Yeimar is a similar player, according to Lagerwey.
In Olave’s first season in the league, he started all 23 of his appearances, scored two goals and nearly helped RSL reach MLS Cup.
Yeimar, who’s 6-2, 200-pounds, has also started all of his appearances (19) and scored twice.
“He’s just an incredible athlete,” Lagerwey said of Yeimar, who was originally discovered by Chris Henderson, the Sounders’ vice president of soccer and sporting director. “Beyond that, Yeimar reads the game pretty well. He’s able to intercept balls and cut off things before it happens. So, I’m really happy about the signing and really happy for Yeimar. He’s hopefully going to be an influential player for us for a long time to come.”
Joao Paulo overcame a summer quad injury that sidelined him for the MLS is Back tournament. He’s shined during regular-season play, starting 17 of his 19 matches and tallying five assists with three goals. He’s blended well with Lodeiro and helps Schmetzer move midfielder Cristian Roldan to right wing because of Joao Paulo’s versatility in the midfield.
“We’re a very similar team to last year, but I think we made some very smart improvements,” Frei said. “Joao Paulo has been one of the best additions in this league.”
‘Prove how good’
Again, the pieces are there. And have been there, really.
Lodeiro joins Morris, Roldan and Frei as the core who have been with the Sounders since 2016. Torres and midfielder Joevin Jones are back for their second stint since 2016 while Kim is the only starter from the 2019 title who isn’t on the current roster.
Even the coaching staff was part of the 2019 MLS Cup run.
Best-ever isn’t a fantastical idea. It’s four wins from materializing.
“We still have that hurdle in front of us to prove how good of a squad this is,” Frei said. “Results, ultimately, will last. The trophies that are in the trophy room are the ones that last. Nobody is going to be talking about the 2020 Sounders if we have nothing to show for it.”