Heading into the final weekend, the Sounders find themselves closer to missing the cut than they have been in their MLS history, needing nothing less than victory against Real Salt Lake.
There are few clearer cut lines in Major League Soccer than the one dividing playoff teams from the unfortunate few left gloomily watching drama unfold from their couches.
This is a league in which the meaning of success can sometimes be tricky to pin down.
Even the most stubborn of Sounders fans would likely trade that 2014 Supporters’ Shield as regular-season champions for the club’s first MLS Cup, but what of those four U.S. Open Cups? And where does the CONCACAF Champions League factor into the equation?
Even the postseason can be quibbled over. Coaches and players alike refer to one-off and two-game playoffs as “crap shoots.” And if that can come across as self-serving – especially for teams like the Sounders, for whom that breakthrough title run has proven elusive – it also hits on the difficulty of black-and-white evaluation.
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Failure, though, is much easier to define.
In MLS’ bloated playoff system, where 60 percent of the league gets in, where it is mathematically more exceptional to miss out than it is to get in, failure is finishing below that dividing line.
The Sounders find themselves closer to that precipice heading into the final weekend than they have been in their MLS history, needing nothing less than victory against Real Salt Lake on Sunday at CenturyLink Field to ensure an eighth consecutive playoff berth.
That they control their own destiny is remarkable on its own, given that Seattle was 10 points outside of the playoff places when interim coach Brian Schmetzer took over for Sigi Schmid in late July. But having whiffed on two chances to punch their ticket last week, that the Sounders have come so far only to trip on the last few hurdles would almost make the pain of missing out even more acute.
“For me, personally? Yeah,” goalkeeper Stefan Frei said when asked if missing the playoffs would be considered a failed season. “Especially with how hard we’ve worked to get back and then had these numerous chances now to finish it. I think that game at home against Houston is one that will stick out to me.”
Seattle could have clinched at home against the Dynamo last Wednesday but were held to a scoreless draw. It was 11 minutes from locking up a spot last Sunday in Frisco, only to fall victim to a pair of late FC Dallas goals. Now, it needs to either beat RSL at CenturyLink or hope either Portland or Kansas City fails to capitalize on their respective winnable games.
How that all shakes out over two fateful hours on Sunday afternoon could reverberate well into the offseason.
“The ingredients of change have been sown,” said general manager Garth Lagerwey, colorfully and ominously, in the wake of Schmid’s departure.
It is easier to tear down a roster and start fresh in MLS than in other sports leagues, due to the relative rarity of guaranteed contracts. Only seven Sounders are on deals that carry through next season, Lagerwey has confirmed without offering specific names.
“This is the truth: If we succeed and we make the playoffs, then a lot of guys get to keep their jobs,” Lagerwey said at the time.
The general manager was referring to the core group of veteran players, but it’s hard not to read that quote and think of Schmetzer’s interim coaching tag.
One can make a case that, no matter how Sunday’s match goes, he’s done enough to earn the full-time gig – even Schmid himself said on ESPN’s MLS Soccer Sunday broadcast that Schmetzer “deserves to keep the job.”
Schmetzer’s Sounders have bridged that double-digit gap despite losing Clint Dempsey, the team’s highest-paid player, for the season in late August due to an irregular heartbeat. Key difference makers Nicolas Lodeiro, Brad Evans and Osvaldo Alonso have each been suspended for one of the most recent three games, and that’s on top of injuries suffered by Andreas Ivanschitz and Alvaro Fernandez.
But again, that dividing line discourages shades of gray. Schmetzer’s tenure would look differently through the smoking embers of a three-match winless streak to end the season than it did just a week ago, when postseason qualification looked all but assured via four straight victories.
“There’s been a lot of adversity,” Schmetzer said Tuesday. “People can make excuses. But we choose not to. We want to win. …. Would I deem the season a success in some ways if we make it to the playoffs? Sure. But that’s not our ultimate success or ultimate goal by any stretch of the imagination. Not at all.
“I would consider it a failure if we don’t win MLS Cup. Making the playoffs is part of that. This club has always been a winning club. That winning tradition holds true.”
Like I said, success can be a tricky word to define in Major League Soccer.
Few are as strict with their definition of failure as Schmetzer is, but good on the coach for setting the bar high for him and his team — if it means that internal scrutiny might be all the harsher should the Sounders fall short of the more collectively agreed upon baseline.