Seattle hosts Colorado on Tuesday night at CenturyLink Field in the first leg of the Western Conference finals. This is how it got there.
The Sounders were forced to sell their best player just weeks before this season. Said season will come to a head starting on Tuesday night, when CenturyLink Field hosts the club’s third-ever Western Conference finals match.
Those two sentences alone would have made for a remarkable campaign – and those bookmarks miss plenty of drama in between.
2016 saw the firing of Seattle’s first MLS coach and the eventual hiring of its second, the signing of its highest-profile Homegrown Player and his coronation as the league’s Rookie of the Year. Just when the team finally started to settle into a groove in late summer, they lost their biggest star for the year with a career-threatening heart condition.
This Sounders season has been so marked by melodrama and transformation that, asked prior to the first playoff game what lessons the team carried over from the last postseason, goalkeeper Stefan Frei looked genuinely befuddled.
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That was only a year ago?
There is perhaps no better marker of just how many twists this epic tome of a Sounders campaign has contained than the fact that, as of mid-February, star forward Obafemi Martins was still on the roster and expected to again be a major contributor.
How the club reacted to and eventually overcame the shock of losing Martins so close to the new season set the tone for everything else that followed.
This was supposed to be circling of wagons so that a trusted veteran core could make one last push at an elusive title. The first domino fell toward the tail end of preseason camp.
Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey bristles at the notion that he was blindsided by Martins’ request for a transfer to Shanghai Shenhua of the Chinese Super League.
Sure, the club had been open about its blueprint to build around a three-man front line that rotated through Martins, Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris and Nelson Valdez. But Martins had been linked with moves elsewhere – some reputable, some not – almost from the day he landed in Seattle. By the time this particular transfer request was filtered through the coaching staff, the player and general manager were no longer on speaking terms.
“Was it surprising? Sure,” Lagerwey said. “Blindsided is if you couldn’t possibly see this coming. To the contrary: We would get a phone call once a month saying we’re going to do this or go here. I can’t say I was blindsided.”
With retrospect, it’s easy to paint Martins’ departure as a win-win for both parties. Seattle was able to fill his vacated Designated Player spot with Uruguayan playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro, named Monday as Major League Soccer’s Newcomer of the Year. Martins, meanwhile, parlayed his move into an even richer contract for next season that will reportedly net him roughly $9 million.
That is to underestimate how much heat Seattle took earlier this season for letting Martins walk, especially when it soon became painfully clear just how overly reliant it was on his influence and production, as well as how directly it led to Sigi Schmid’s ouster.
The Sounders were largely run off the field during their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Mexico’s Club America – yes, that really did happen during this calendar year – and proceeded to lose their first three MLS games en route to a prolonged slump.
Relief finally came in late July, but too late for Schmid: incoming player and outgoing coach crossing paths the day Lodeiro arrived at Starfire to finalize his contract.
Ask the Sounders players for the moment their season started turning around, and most pinpoint the 3-1, come-from-behind win in Orlando in early August.
Seattle tied 1-1 with Los Angeles in Schmetzer’s first match as interim coach, giving up a late goal that cast its postseason odds further in doubt. The next weekend at the Citrus Bowl, spirits dropped even further when the hosts scored on an early set piece.
“It was an easy time to drop our heads and go, ‘Here we go again,’” veteran defender Chad Marshall said. “But we didn’t. We kept fighting and pulled out a really good result down there. I think that was the start of when we could see all of the pieces coming together.”
Throughout the resulting three-match win streak, the Sounders looked as fearsome as any team in the league. Lodeiro meshed immediately with Dempsey, and Morris was allowed to temporarily step out of the spotlight’s glare.
In what would prove his final act of 2016, Dempsey scored twice in the 3-1 home win over rival Portland, gesturing to the away fans with a throat slash at the final whistle. He did not travel to Houston for the match the following Wednesday, an irregularity having been detected in his heartbeat. A few weeks later, Dempsey would be shut down for the year.
The Sounders again re-calibrated. They haven’t been the attacking juggernaut they were when their full roster was breifly healthy – Dempsey’s impulsiveness could be especially missed against a Rapids team likely to pack numbers behind the ball – but they’ve been hardened, more resilient, in making it this far. They qualified for the postseason on the final day of the regular season, survived a serious scare from Kansas City in the knockout round then toppled top-seeded Dallas with ease.
“You never want to do it that way,” Lagerwey said. “You don’t want to be put through crucible like what happened with Clint. But the group has been resilient. They’ve been resilient from the moment Brian took over, when we had 20 points through 20 games.”
The story of the season hasn’t just been about Schmetzer making the most of his once-in-a-lifetime shot at his dream job, or the arrival of Lodeiro, or Roman Torres’ late-August return from knee surgery.
“I would resist an attempt to say that this has been just one thing,” Lagerwey said. “By definition, you have to have had a whole bunch of things start to go better in order for us to have the turnaround that we’ve had.
“It’s everybody and we’re a sum of those parts. That’s maybe one of the coolest parts. The guys are happy, and the guys are together. That’s a fun group to be around and interact with. You’re rooting for them.”
Which brings us to Tuesday, and what could very well be Seattle’s best-ever shot to reach its first MLS Cup. The 2012 conference finalists arrived home on the wrong side of a 3-0 deficit to the Galaxy. The 2014 team was probably the finest in the Sounders’ recent history but up against an equally loaded L.A. squad.
This year’s playoff field has been wide open from the start. With goalkeeper Tim Howard out for the season and leading-scorer Shkelzen Gashi doubtful with an ankle injury, these Rapids are eminently beatable.
To some league observers, there’s an irony to the club that has so often prized stability potentially breaking through with the most disorderly campaign of its MLS era.
“The best-laid plans, right? This is a (Sounders) organization that, right from the get-go, positioned themselves as a super-club,” Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas said. “… And yet, when it finally comes to when the promised land is actually within reach, it’s in a completely strange and actually typically MLS way, where no one can predict it, you can’t plan for it. In a certain sense, they’re just riding it.”
There’s a temptation to cast Schmid as the Moses figure in that metaphor, but that doesn’t quite feel right, either. There is little use in trying to make sense of this glorious mess of a year.
“It goes back to this strange phenomenon: If all these stars don’t align, with Brian and all that stuff, then who knows if you have this moment in time,” Lalas said.
Seattle’s moment could at long last come to fruition starting on Tuesday night, at the close of this most tumultuous of seasons.