For the third consecutive season, a smashing success of a regular season for the Seattle Sounders ended in a disappointing playoff exit.
Seattle finished with the league’s second best record in 2011, won their third straight US Open Cup trophy and successfully navigated through the group stages of the CONCACAF Champions League. But come the MLS Cup Playoffs, it was all for naught as a 3-2 aggregate loss to Real Salt Lake in the Western Conference Semifinals is the lasting memory.
But the emergence of Mauro Rosales and Lamar Neagle, alongside the continued excellence of Fredy Montero and Osvaldo Alonso, leaves Seattle looking strong again in 2012. The retirement of Kasey Keller exposed a gaping hole in between the posts, but that should be filled by the signing of Austrian goalkeeper Michael Gspurning.
Best Moment of the Year
The Sounders already had a 1-0 lead over the Chicago Fire in October’s US Open Cup final, courtesy of Fredy Montero’s 77th-minute tally. But Alonso’s mazy run-and-finish through the exhausted Fire defense deep into extra time provided the elegant coup de grace in Seattle’s third consecutive USOC triumph.
Worst Moment of the Year
Watching Steve Zakuani go down to a broken leg in April thanks to Brian Mullan’s harsh challenge was gruesome and tough to take for all fans of MLS. The winger is targeting a return to competitive action in March, 11 months after the incident. The MLS universe united in near-unanimous disdain toward Mullan’s retaliatory tackle, which came moments after the Rapids player felt he was the victim of a no-call.
In a year full of goals – 56 in the regular season – Neagle’s improbable game-winner against Sporting Kansas City on Aug. 6 takes the cake. Seattle clawed back from a 1-0 deficit in sweltering 90-degree conditions, with Neagle scoring the second of Seattle’s two stoppage-time goals for a 2-1 victory.
Even at age 41, Keller didn’t show many signs of rust as he earned the league’s Save of the Week award six times in 2011. But his quadruple-save against San Jose in his final regular-season game at CenturyLink Field in front of more than 64,000 tops the list. Keller stymied Khari Stephenson, Chris Wondolowski and Simon Dawkins in quick succession.
What will this team do without Keller? Sounders fans will find out in March. The omnipresent goalkeeper and Washington native hung up his cleats after playing 119 of the franchise’s 130 competitive matches. Certainly, several others deserve to be in the conversation for Most Valuable Player on a very well-balanced team. But Keller’s steady influence as team captain and professional demeanor on the training ground and on the field set the tone for the franchise.
Rosales was a revelation in his first season in MLS. The former Argentine international signed with Seattle for a bargain-basement cap number, helping the Sounders to second place in the regular-season standings with five goals and 13 assists. The 2011 MLS Newcomer of the Year reportedly got a big bump in pay with the new contract he signed this week – there’s no player on the roster more deserving.
1. Reinforce the right back position: The club struggled all year to find a suitable backup to James Riley at right back. The minutes laid on the 29-year-old may have showed in the first playoff match against Real Salt Lake, when the veteran struggled. With Riley lost in the Expansion Draft, do-it-all defender Zach Scott is really his only replacement. Finding a right back who is comfortable with the ball and can join the attack is one of Seattle’s offseason to-dos.
2. Replace the surface: It’s doubtful any players – home or visiting – will be sad to see the CenturyLink Field turf go. The artificial surface the Sounders share with the Seattle Seahawks is in dire need of replacement, which will occur in February. The hard rain during the Sounders’ home game against Portland in May hampered Seattle’s passing attack, helping the Timbers escape with a 1-1 draw.
3. Allow younger players to become leaders: Many veteran voices left this team in the offseason. Keller retired, while 30-somethings Pat Noonan and Nate Jaqua were lost in the MLS Re-Entry Draft. Riley, who was always the first to come to the aid of a teammate during an on-field dispute, is also gone. If this team is to continue its strong form, players like Brad Evans and Montero must be step into leadership positions. The selection of the club captain in early 2012 will be important in setting the tone for the upcoming season.