It could be, but first — can Lamar Neagle, Osvaldo Alonso, Zach Scott, Brad Evans and Leo Gonzalez help Seattle raise its first MLS Cup title?
There’s a photo taken in the aftermath of the 2009 U.S. Open Cup final that captures the innocent exuberance of the Sounders’ inaugural MLS season.
Team captain Kasey Keller is lifting the silver cup with his gigantic goalie hands, mouth frozen agape in mid-scream. Rookie Steve Zakuani is standing to his left, unbroken and whole. Most of the other players in the shot have come and gone from the team — Freddie Ljungberg, Peter Vagenas.
Some of the faces, though, are familiar even to fans that have followed the team only recently. The hairlines are fuller, jerseys a little baggier, but they’re easy to spot.
Osvaldo Alonso and Leo Gonzalez stand, appropriately, side by side. Hidden behind Vagenas’ elbow is a roaring Brad Evans, and Lamar Neagle’s head pokes around Keller’s torso. Somewhere in the mess of bodies hides Zach Scott.
Most Read Sports Stories
- Trash Talk: WSU coach Nick Rolovich asked if Husky Stadium was built on 'an old garbage dump.' Here's the answer.
- Seahawks GM John Schneider's decisions are paying off in a big way once again
- Will Seahawks run even more with Chris Carson back? Maybe, but Eagles numbers suggest passing may make more sense
- UW Huskies coach Jimmy Lake on preparing for Utah on short notice and whether the Apple Cup can still be played
- After Apple Cup canceled, UW Huskies will host Utah on Saturday night
Alonso and Gonzalez, Evans, Scott and Neagle — the original MLS Sounders. Gonzalez joined the club midseason, and Neagle has bounced around in the years since. The other three have been mainstays from that milestone 3-0 victory over the Red Bulls on opening night.
They’ve won three more Open Cups and a Supporters’ Shield as regular-season champions. They’ve formed the framework for six consecutive playoff teams and set the tone in the locker room.
They’ve lived the club’s wildest dreams, but for the most important one of all. And this might be the last chance for this group of five original Sounders to win the MLS Cup they’ve aimed for since Day 1.
“Now,” Keller asked recently, “can that core take it over the edge?”
Hard work pays off
It was a rag-tag group that arrived in Seattle for the first Sounders training camp in the winter of 2008-09. Most of them flew in from elsewhere, clustering at downtown hotels in a new city, playing cards to pass the time. Most came in with something to prove.
Scott, whose service with the USL Sounders didn’t carry much weight in the MLS world, tells the story of arriving at his first tryout and seeing other hopefuls wearing jean shorts. Alonso was a Cuban defector who also spent the previous season in the USL with Charleston. Evans was coming off an MLS Cup victory with Columbus, but he was left unprotected in the expansion draft.
On and on, caveats attached to almost every name on the roster.
Keller was the star, the prodigal son back from Europe around whom the rest of the bunch orbited. Sure, they were raw, but Keller noticed a commonality among younger teammates such as Alonso and Evans.
“High energy, work hard on both sides of the ball,” Keller said. “When you’re going into the situation that we were going into as an expansion team, were we going to run teams off the park? Probably not. You wanted guys that were good, down-to-earth, hard-working guys.”
The 2009 season wasn’t always pretty. The Sounders tied 11 matches, second-most in the Western Conference, and at one point during a difficult August got walloped 4-0 by a San Jose team that would finish in last place with a minus-14 goal differential. Yet they became just the second MLS expansion team to qualify for the postseason in their inaugural season.
“In 2009, we obviously didn’t have as good of a team, player-wise, as we do now,” Evans said. “I think we can all admit that, the caliber of player. But we still got results. We still won the Open Cup. That says a lot about the spirit of the team. We’ve won a lot of games over the last couple minutes in the past seven years.”
Continuity makes a difference
It’s not easy to pick out the common threads of all the Sounders teams in the MLS era.
This always has been a team defined by its stars, and those have filtered through, from Ljungberg and Fredy Montero to Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins.
“The common thread that runs through all our teams is that we try to take advantage of our personnel,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said.
Seattle’s style has shifted, from a team that liked to funnel play down the wing with players such as Zakuani and DeAndre Yedlin to one that liked to build through the middle with Alonso to one that wants to get the ball to talented forwards as quickly as possible.
Yet to do that, to allow your stars to shine as brightly as possible, others must make sacrifices.
“You need guys who are going to do the bread-and-butter dirty work,” Schmid said, and Alonso, Evans, Gonzalez and Scott have all thrived in those roles. They’ve provided the scaffolding.
Building around a trusted core is not an uncommon strategy in a league that restricts player movement — see: Real Salt Lake’s and Sporting Kansas City’s MLS Cup-winning teams. But nor is this the status quo in MLS, with expansion drafts picking off rotation guys and some journeymen doomed to spend their careers hopping from city to city in search of their next paycheck.
Keller ticks off famous international teams that kept their core together — Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United with Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, Arsene Wenger’s earlier Arsenal teams with Tony Adams and David Seaman — as examples of the value of continuity.
“You had a crew that was there for a long amount of time,” Keller said. “It makes a difference. Then you bring in little components here and there. Having that core, and keeping that core stable, is a big reason for a lot of teams’ success.
“It’s a really hard thing to build from scratch. Just look at Toronto.”
Entering this season, Toronto, despite having begun life in MLS two years earlier, an ambitious ownership and no shortage of big-name signings, had yet to qualify for MLS Cup playoffs. Seattle has not missed them.
End of an era looms
Scott hasn’t always played a significant role on the field, but few Sounders are as central to the MLS club’s origin story. He’s the link with incarnations past, the torchbearer for the city’s proud soccer culture.
He’s also, at 35, still the one setting the tone on the practice field and in the locker room even in a season where he’s slipped down the depth chart.
“The way he trains, I’ve not seen it before in my career,” said first-year Sounders defender Tyrone Mears, who has played for eight clubs in three countries. “For a guy his age, he treats training like a match. He wants to win every ball. He wants to win every tackle. He doesn’t drop.
“To have him in the squad for the young players, they can see, this is what it takes to be a professional soccer player.”
With the defense hit hard by injuries and Nelson Valdez a late scratch on the wing, all five of the originals started last weekend’s match with the Galaxy at CenturyLink Field.
These are not living relics — each of them likely will have to play some sort of role if Seattle is to make a serious push for its first MLS Cup title starting this month. But the end of an era still looms somewhere on the horizon.
Scott and Gonzalez are in their mid-30s, and Alonso, playing a position that demands reliability, has been limited by injury for two consecutive campaigns. Evans was shifted to full-time central defense in a concerted effort to extend his career, and it’s unclear whether going back to a utilityman after the Roman Torres signing will affect his future with the club.
With age comes a greater appreciation for all they’ve accomplished, if only for a moment.
“You really saw it last year, when we won that U.S. Open Cup,” Scott said. “It was kind a surreal experience to look around and go, ‘Hey dude, we’ve won this four times. It’s pretty amazing.’ There are definitely moments in time where you really notice and appreciate it, other than that, you’re out here grinding away.”
This autumn could go a long way toward defining the legacy of Sigi Schmid’s Seattle tenure and that of the original Sounders. An early playoff flameout — or another loss to the Galaxy — could land them in the realm of consistently good but not great, an important steppingstone if not the ultimate destination.
Or it could all be vindicated, this strategy of building around veterans and keeping a trusted core intact. Come December, maybe they’ll line up for another iconic snapshot, beards flecked with gray and smiling faces creased with a few extra lines as they lift the trophy they’ve wanted most all along.
“The first time is always important,” Gonzalez said. “The first game, the first Cup. If we could get the first MLS Cup for the Sounders, it would be very important, and we’ll be in history.”