Repeating a well-worn mantra about the unlikelihood of winning consecutive championships in professional sport is far easier than a team like the Sounders actually turning that theory on its head.
Simply put, their odds of repeating as MLS Cup champions this season depreciated like a Corvette driven out of the showroom the moment they hoisted the Anschutz Trophy last November. It’s not about the flurry of winter moves by general manager Garth Lagerwey – they’ve improved the team’s chances, if nothing else – but moreover the parity in modern pro sports, a sudden death playoff formula requiring some luck and the inevitable “hangover” effect most title winners go through.
You could have added CONCACAF Champions League burnout, though that element vanished Thursday night as the Sounders were surprisingly bounced by first-round opponent CD Olimpia of Honduras. If nothing else, rival Los Angeles FC now expending energy on another round or three of that event likely tilts MLS Cup repeat odds more the Sounders’ way.
But you won’t catch the Sounders celebrating that as they kick off another Major League Soccer season Sunday at home against the Chicago Fire. They’ll have to reset increasingly lofty ambitions for success beyond MLS and focus on the difficult task of securing another title within a league that hasn’t always shown them respect normally due champions.
“When you faceplant like we did … and you’re the only MLS team that didn’t go through, it’s a wakeup call,” Lagerwey said of the franchise’s bitter internal Champions League disappointment. “With every crisis comes an opportunity. And we have a real opportunity to set things right and go chase the No. 1 seed in the West and that’s what we’re going to do.”
It’s an opportunity for coach Brian Schmetzer and his players to set non-believers straight as well.
Some of the doubt about these Sounders again getting past LAFC in the Western Conference and winning another title is due to no MLS team repeating as champion since the L.A. Galaxy in 2011 and 2012. Not to mention, over the past six seasons the 2017 Sounders and 2019 Atlanta United FC squads are the only defending champs to even win a playoff round.
But there’s also something about the Sounders winning a title that seemingly brings out the worst in MLS clubs and pundits. All through the 2017 campaign, talk around the league was how the Sounders had fluked off the prior year’s MLS Cup victory in Toronto without notching a single shot on goal.
Talk continued even as the Sounders made it all the way back to the final, only to lose to Toronto.
Then, LAFC was everybody’s MLS Cup favorite last year after setting the latest MLS single-season points record until the Sounders stunned them with a 3-1 road win in the conference final.
That the Sounders subsequently beat Toronto 3-1 for the MLS Cup title at CenturyLink Field wasn’t enough for some pundits who kept insisting the “Reds’’ dominated most of the game. Heading into this season, the narrative isn’t much about whether the Sounders can repeat but whether LAFC will rebound from clearly another fluke to take what’s rightfully theirs.
Meanwhile, the Sounders, with 11 consecutive playoff appearances and three championship game visits the past four years, have recently hovered from only fifth-best to the third-highest odds of reclaiming their title – trailing LAFC in all cases and sometimes Atlanta, Toronto and New York City FC as well.
“We use that to our advantage,” Schmetzer said. “We use that little bit of underdog card. The league is growing. It’s growing very fast and there are some quality players coming into the league. The messaging (to players) is just making sure they understand they have the confidence that they are one of the better clubs in the league.”
Schmetzer agreed the franchise hasn’t always gotten respect commensurate with accomplishments — including most victories and combined MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup wins since 2009.
“I think after three out of four (finals appearances) we’re starting to,” he said. “I think there was some talk about it, like, ‘OK, Seattle’s a good team but LAFC’s better’ and ‘Atlanta spent all that money and (Miguel) Almiron got sold.’ I think there were a lot of storylines in MLS — and they’re good storylines … but we still consider ourselves one of the top teams in the league.”
Peter Tomozowa, the team’s president of business operations, said a lack of respect was evident in a recent item by statistical website FiveThirtyEight.com putting the chances of a Sounders repeat at just 4%. That tied with five other teams for sixth-highest and lagged well behind LAFC’s 25%.
“They don’t consider us as part of that,” he said of the league’s elite teams. “So, yeah, we want that respect. I feel like we’ve earned it. And I think we have to go out and earn it every single day.”
It should be said, the latest ESPN power rankings do have the Sounders at No. 1 — largely based off last year’s title — and LAFC at No. 2.
Some more good news is Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, midfielders Nicolas Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan and wingers Jordan Morris and Joevin Jones already won a championship in 2016 and dealt with this year-after stuff in 2017.
“There’s a target on your back, No. 1 and that’s the biggest one,” Roldan said Friday. “You have to show up to every game. It’s going to be a battle in every game and sometimes it won’t be pretty. And there are times where you play pretty football and wind up losing the game.”
Roldan said “putting teams away” and playing “a complete 90-minute game from top to bottom” will be paramount because the target isn’t soon going away.
“It’s bigger than ever.”
And though they didn’t play for the 2016 title, Kelvin Leerdam, Gustav Svensson, Nouhou, Will Bruin and Harry Shipp were key contributors in nearly defending it in 2017 and still here. Perennial goal scorer Raul Ruidiaz is also back, while the Sounders beefed up well despite the departures of left back Brad Smith, center backs Kim Kee-hee and Roman Torres and oft-injured MLS Cup Most Valuable Player Victor Rodriguez.
Lagerwey imported Brazilian midfielder Joao Paulo as a new designated player, and he already scored twice in the two Champions League games against CD Olimpia. The GM also landed defender Yeimar Gomez Andrade to line up alongside center back Xavier Arreaga, while bringing in Shane O’Neill for needed depth at that position.
Lagerwey then topped it off by inking veteran MLS midfielder Miguel Ibarra last week.
So, the fill-ins for Rodriguez, Kim and Torres are there, while highly talented Nouhou slides back to competing with Jones for the full-time left back role occupied before Smith’s 2018 arrival.
On paper, once the newcomers acclimate — especially on defense — this should be a stronger lineup than last season’s.
But that’s probably all anybody around MLS is prepared to give the Sounders. They’ll need to win many more games and probably another title to capture hearts and minds within a league always gravitating toward the shiny new thing – only to consistently find the old Rave Green standard still hanging around when it matters most.