The Throw-In: Sounders a victim of their own expectations?

Throw-In: Sigi Schmid and Mauro Rosales

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They say building a team takes three years. Take a look at the current powerhouses in Major League Soccer, and you’ll find “they” are usually correct.

Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey took a moribund Real Salt Lake squad in 2007, morphed them to an improbable MLS Cup-winner in ’09 and last season had the most complete, fearsome team in MLS.

Bruce Arena collected the smoldering remains of the Beckham-Gullit Era LA Galaxy in midsummer of ’08 and rebuilt LA into Supporters’ Shield winners last season and presumptive title-winners this fall.

Schellas Hyndman, whose magnificent job in rebuilding FC Dallas may be the most surprising pleasant turn in MLS history, has crafted a (forgive the pun, Houston) dynamo of a team in Frisco that is on the verge of doing amazing things in Year 3 of his tenure.

Perhaps no one knows this better than Sigi Schmid, who has had his fair share of three-year rebuilding projects. The iconic coach was behind the Galaxy’s rise from mediocrity to their most prolific era in the early 2000s, then took a Columbus side that finished at the bottom of the overall MLS table in 2005 all the way to a Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup double in ‘08.

“Is three years a magic number?” Schmid asked MLSsoccer.com pensively during a phone conversation on Wednesday. “I don’t know. What I do know is that once your team starts to gel, then they hit adversity and come out the other side, that’s when you know they’ll push and fight for you.”

One could argue Schmid has worked his magic again in his third head-coaching gig in MLS. His Seattle Sounders side still has its flaws — minor lapses in defense at key moments and an excruciating habit of failing to finish goal-scoring chances — but it’s pretty much beyond doubt at this point that this year’s version of the Sounders are the most complete, the deepest and the most mature in the franchise’s three-year MLS history.

And it’s the recent results during Seattle’s seven-game unbeaten streak that prove these Sounders are learning.

Winning on the road? Check. The Sounders’ 14 points away from home are second in the league only to LA’s 19, and they’ve bagged wins in places like Rio Tinto Stadium and BMO Field in recent weeks.

Winning when down a man? Check. The Rave Green grabbed all three points in Toronto last month despite playing nearly the entire second half with 10 players on the field.

Rallying for victories? Again, check. Seattle made a furious comeback to beat New England 2-1 after conceding early — the type of physical battles in which they may have come up short in previous matches.

Schmid agrees that this unit is his best in Seattle. He cites Osvaldo Alonso at the peak of his game-altering powers, Brad Evans finally healthy and being a full-field difference-maker, Jeff Parke finally finding a role in his system and foreign imports like Mauro Rosales and Erik Friberg providing discipline and grace.

“The whole team has matured, especially down the middle of field,” the 58-year-old said. “Part of that is due to what happens through our time together, part is going through those different experiences where we wouldn’t have gotten those results in previous games.”

But regardless of where Seattle end up at the end of the season — if they win a third straight US Open Cup, if they qualify for the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League, even if they finally get past that first round of the MLS Cup playoffs — it’s remarkable to consider how quickly the Sounders have become a force in this league.

Expansion Teams Over First Three Seasons

TEAM YEARS WINS POINTS PLAYOFF APPS. MAJOR TROPHIES
CHI* 1998-00 55 161 3 3
MIA* 1998-00 40 105 2 0
RSL 2005-07 21 86 0 0
CHV 2005-07 29 114 2 0
TOR 2007-09 25 99 0 1
SJ 2008-10 28 109 1 0
SEA** 2009-11 40 149 3 2
*In '98 & '99, shootout wins after regulation draws counted as wins worth 1 point in standings
**Wins, points, playoff appearance projected through 34-game schedule

With so many teams being added in recent seasons, we almost forget that Seattle are only in their third year in MLS. Maybe it is some of Schmid’s three-year magic — but no expansion team in league history has ever become a consistent winner this quickly (see chart at right).

In two-and-a-half seasons, the Sounders already have two major trophies, two playoff appearances and are averaging more points per game (1.6) than any team in Season 3. Well, all except the Chicago Fire, who ruined expectations for all future expansion sides.

In Bob Bradley’s first three seasons in the Windy City, the Fire won an MLS Cup, two US Open Cups, won 55 games and took a whopping 161 points out of 96 regular-season games. But that also came during an era where shootouts settled draws in MLS and teams got a point (and a “W”) for every shootout victory.

Schmid and Seattle have raised and set their own bar for expansion success in this modern era, and no one looks like they’ll come close to matching it soon. Yes, the deep pockets of Paul Allen, Joe Roth and the Seattle Seahawks have certainly helped the Sounders — as have the 34,000-plus crowds. But it’s still amazing to think about the speed at which things have happened at CenturyLink Field.

“No one has done what we’ve done,” said Schmid, offering full praise to his employers and technical staff. “Sometimes that has heaped additional pressure on us. People need to look at our record over the three years and compare that to other [expansion teams] over three years. What we’ve done is remarkable. Yes, we set a high bar, we set a standard, and that’s what we are holding ourselves to.”

So it comes as no surprise that Seattle are now victims of their own success. All that regular-season ambition and fireworks will mean nothing if the Sounders fizzle in the playoffs again — they’ve got just one goal in four postseason games to show for their efforts.

A third Open Cup? A win on Sunday in the fiery den of their archrivals down Interstate 5? A better run in the CCL? Sure, that’d be nice. But for Seattle, Year 3 has become put up or shut up. And Schmid is well aware of that.

“We need to go in and take our regular-season play into the postseason,” he admitted. “We need to perform up to our own expectations and move into that second round, then go as far as we can. That’s our measure for our team.”

They’ll have to get their first. July is positively brutal for the Rave Green. After Sunday’s trip to Portland, the Sounders then must defend their Open Cup against the Galaxy in next week’s quarterfinals, followed by back-to-back home games against the defending champion Rapids in league play, then Manchester United in a mega-friendly.

Then it’s down to Panama for a sweltering first-leg Champions League qualifier against San Francisco FC, followed by another sweatbox road game in Houston.

“Some look at that schedule, and say, ‘What a stretch,’” Schmid said. “I just smile. We’re playing in the Open Cup, we’re playing in the Champions League — that means we’re doing things. If you’re successful, that’s what you want.”

Maybe this month will tell us how much magic is indeed in the number three in the Emerald City.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.