What began as the worst season in club history now looks like the Seattle Sounders' best-ever shot at an MLS Cup championship.
It feels strange to type that sentence, and it probably looks odd to many readers, too.
Four months ago Seattle hit their low-water mark for the season, a grisly 3-0 capitulation at Sporting KC on July 24 that left the Rave Green in ninth place in the Western Conference with a 6-12-2 record, and prompted coach Sigi Schmid's dismissal after nearly a decade of service.
Those of us who watched that lifeless performance could scarcely have imagined that four months later the Sounders would be where they are now: two positive results away from MLS Cup, starting with Tuesday's first leg of the Western Conference Championship vs. Colorado at CenturyLink Field (10 pm ET, FS1, TSN1, TSN3, RDS2). Even after their unlikely clamber into the West's No. 4 seed, expert prognosticators gave them a mere 7 percent chance of cup glory.
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But 2016 has been a strange year in so many respects. Why not a Lazarus tale for MLS champs?
The Sounders can make a case for being the most consistently competitive club in MLS history. They've qualified for the postseason in all eight of their seasons in the league, and have carried legitimate championship aspirations into most of those playoff runs. Yet they've fallen short of the final time and again.
As good as Seattle have been in other knockout tournaments – they've won four of the eight US Open Cups contested since their MLS entry and have competed about as well as any MLS team in CONCACAF Champions League during that time – the MLS Cup Playoffs have been a tough slog by comparison.
The Rave Green won Knockout Round games in 2015 and 2013, but have reached the Conference Championship stage just twice, in 2012 and 2014. On both occasions, they were outmaneuvered by the LA Galaxy, and both times LA went on to claim MLS Cup.
The latter case was particularly agonizing, as the Sounders lost on the away goals rule at home, having taken a 2-1 aggregate lead at C-Link only to give up an away goal to Juninho after the break. It marked the third time in five years LA had knocked Seattle out of the postseason, and denied the Sounders the final piece in their run at “the treble,” having won the US Open Cup and Supporters' Shield that season.
There's significance in the simple fact that the Galaxy, Seattle's longstanding playoff bogeymen, have already exited the 2016 scene. But there's more than that going on this year.
In past years Seattle have been uneasy bearers of high expectations. Sounders FC are rightly lauded for their lofty ambitions, enormous fanbase, big crowds and prominent position in the local sports scene. But there's a flip side to it. Every promising regular season risks becoming seen as a coronation parade. Every trophy captured that isn't MLS Cup further ratchets up the sense of expectation…and unfulfillment at the continued failure to gain that final prize.
By now you're likely quite familiar with the story of Seattle's late-July coaching change, the arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro and the stretch-run resurgence that followed. So much went so wrong early on – and this persevering team has forged ahead just the same, surviving as deeply into the postseason as they ever have.
It seems to have produced a unit with with little fear of the unknown, or of failure. To steal a line from Jimi Hendrix, these Sounders are Stone Free.
“It’s a team of players that have been around,” well-traveled striker Herculez Gomez told MLSsoccer.com this week. “And when you’ve been around, you don’t start freaking out, you don’t press the panic button when maybe others would.
“It’s that belief that even during hard times, you know the animal you’re going against. I think that familiarity with things is what’s allowed us to just keep going.”
LA are gone. Dallas were dispatched in the last round. Their Cascadia rivals from Portland and Vancouver didn't even qualify. The Rapids that stand in their way are stout and solid, but short on postseason expertise. And the Sounders know that if they can navigate a path into the MLS Cup final, anything can happen over 90 minutes.
Why not them?