SEATTLE – These are not your old Seattle Sounders.
The 80 minutes of frustration and bad luck experienced on Tuesday night in the US Open Cup final against the Chicago Fire would have sank the Sounders of the last two years. Shoulders would typically sag and heads would drop, especially after hitting the woodwork twice, watching Álvaro Fernández leave the match at halftime and witnessing Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson making miraculous saves.
“This would’ve been a difficult game for us,” defender Jeff Parke said. “There would’ve been times in the past that you could sense that the group was losing its focus or maybe its drive a bit. But this year’s different. Guys are starting to believe and understand what it takes. And it’s starting to show a lot. We were still buzzing and still trying to make it happen [against the Fire]. … Hats off to everybody tonight.”
Fredy Montero, as he has done so often in the second half of the season, finally found a way past Johnson, who seemed inspired on the night. Then Osvaldo Alonso iced it with a second in stoppage time for the 2-0 final score line.
There was no sulking on Tuesday night. It was very much the contrary. Other playoff hopefuls around the league will have taken notice that the wave of enthusiasm in Seattle continue to swell with every match and the Sounders are ready to crash the postseason.
“We’re happy, but not satisfied,” Alonso said. “We have other objectives to achieve and what’s left is MLS Cup, which is our primary objective. We need to forget the US Open Cup. The MLS Cup is our chief objective.”
According to the players, that was the exact message expressed by Sounders manager Sigi Schmid when the team gathered in the locker room after the on-field celebrations. Parke and Alonso told the same story: There was a very different air among their teammates in Tuesday’s postgame compared to last year’s victory over the Columbus Crew.
“You look around the room and we all have that look and burning desire inside – this isn’t it,” Parke said. “You can see in the guys’ eyes that there’s belief in the room that we’re ready to move on. This is great, but we have bigger things coming. That was the message [from Schmid].”
Why is it different this year when so many of the faces are still the same? It’s the same reason that Schmid put so much stock into winning titles in his third season at the helm: The Sounders are all grown up in 2011.
“The guys have matured,” Parke said. “They have been playing some big games and understanding what it takes to get wins and battle through tough times. … Guys respect each other a lot more this year and we’re finding ways to win.”
Added Alonso: “We’ve been playing together for three years. I think the team has more enthusiasm and happiness [this year]. The team is tighter and this is what has gotten us success this year.”
The US Open Cup final crowd was bigger this year. The roar of the celebrations was louder. The number of trophies on display in the championship photo was greater. There’s something different about the Sounders in Year 3.
“The team has been knocked out in the first round of the playoffs the past two years,” Parke said. “We want to do something special here and we want to win a Cup and make it past the first round. These guys are finding it inside them and willing to do whatever it takes. It’s starting to show on the field and we’re gearing up for the MLS Cup, hopefully.”