After being crushed by Toronto FC in the MLS Cup championship game, the Sounders this week must begin the delicate task of retooling their finalist squad if they hope for a return to next year's big game
TORONTO – Legacies are difficult to pin down in the immediate aftermath of a championship match, especially for the losing side.
The only certainty after the Sounders were thoroughly manhandled 2-0 by Toronto FC in the MLS Cup game here on Saturday is that nobody will be discussing Brian Schmetzer’s team as an all-time great. That had been a possibility up until the victorious “Reds’’ proved if any team deserved such consideration, it should be them after handily outplaying the Sounders in the title game a second straight year.
And just like last season – even though the Sounders pulled out an improbable 2016 championship on penalty kicks – the work starts now to close the gap with a Toronto side clearly superior. Whether it’s figuring out which 11 regulars to protect ahead of this week’s Major League Soccer Expansion Draft, or which players not to tender contracts to or pick up options on, the Sounders face immediate decisions on a 2018 season fast approaching.
“We’re still a good team,’’ Schmetzer said. “Can we go out and compile a few more wins and maybe host an MLS Cup final in front of our Seattle fans? It’s very, very challenging in MLS to win away from home.’’
For now, returning to and hosting a championship is the first 2018 goal Schmetzer has already set. But achieving that will require the Sounders getting better than they currently are.
The team is expected to announce shortly it’s got a one-year extension with star forward Clint Dempsey, who led the Sounders with 12 regular season and three playoff goals. Beyond him, there are decisions forthcoming about the guy second in team scoring, striker Will Bruin, who proved as formidable as Dempsey but is also manning a position the Sounders view Jordan Morris as the long-term solution at.
Midfielder Osvaldo Alonso never quite recovered from gutting his way through last year’s championship on a damaged knee and spent most of 2017 sidelined by injuries. Same with midfielder Brad Evans, who was the starting right back until shelved by a recurring herniated disc issue in his back that forced the team to bring in Kelvin Leerdam.
Evans will almost certainly be left to free agency after being a franchise mainstay since 2009.
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On Sunday, the Sounders provided hints as to the direction they’re heading, protecting Bruin in the expansion draft but leaving Evans and Alonso unprotected. With Alonso, the Sounders may be hoping the expansion Los Angeles side won’t risk taking a currently-injured player but it’s a gamble nonetheless.
Left back Joevin Jones was also unprotected, though he’s leaving to play in Germany. The Sounders are confident they have his replacement in rookie Nouhou. Attacking midfielders Nicolas Lodeiro and Victor Rodriguez will return, though another Designated Player attacking threat seems a priority given the lack of potency in the final.
Retooling this squad will be a balancing act in that it isn’t exactly broken. The Sounders tied for the Western Conference lead and made it to the MLS Cup game a second straight year looking more balanced and dangerous than last season’s champions.
“It’s a very strong league and a very long league and you have to work very hard to achieve what you are trying to do,’’ Lodeiro said, through an interpreter, about his first full MLS campaign. “So, what I learned is, even though at the beginning of the season we didn’t think we were going to reach this final stage again, with very hard work we were able to accomplish that.’’
From the time they brought Leerdam in to his first game July 19, the Sounders went 8-2-5 to finish the regular season. Adding playoff results, they went 11-3-6 over the final 20 games with their new primary lineup.
Factored over a full season, that’s a 19-5-10 pace and good for 67 points. Toronto just had the most successful regular season in history at 20-5-9 for 69 points. On paper, that suggests the Sounders already have enough to compete for a Supporters Shield and MLS Cup homefield advantage.
Had they won Saturday, folks would be comparing the Sounders to the Los Angeles Galaxy squads manned by David Beckham and Landon Donovan. Alas, sports are cruel that way in that one-game championship outcomes do shape legacies and redefine how teams are viewed.
Nobody watching Saturday could possibly conclude the Sounders are TFC’s equals. If anything, the comments last week by Toronto coach Greg Vanney that the Sounders weren’t prepared for the intensity of a championship game against a team from the superior Eastern Conference now rings more true.
And Toronto nearly didn’t make the final, barely beating a Columbus side that also took the Sounders apart in handing them a 3-0 loss last May.
“It was an extremely unusual game by our standards,’’ Cristian Roldan said of Toronto after Saturday’s clash. “I feel like we out-pass every team. We usually out-duel every team. Columbus away and then this game were probably the first two games that we got outfought in every category.’’
There were three other Eastern teams besides Toronto and Columbus that had better records than the Sounders. And the Sounders lost to four of them – Toronto, Columbus, New York City FC and Chicago – while tying Atlanta.
So, to play a final at home, these Sounders are chasing more than just the team that throttled them here.
And like last season, they face a ridiculously short winter before training camp opens in six weeks. The lack of a break doomed the Sounders to a slow start this season and cost them a conference title.
“We need to do well during the beginning of the season to get homefield advantage,’’ Roldan said.
And that will involve jettisoning current players and bringing in new bodies right away that didn’t just finish the prior season a few weeks earlier.