The Seattle Sounders are the defending MLS Cup champions, and they look every bit like frontrunners to defend their title.
The Rave Green are 4-1-1 since the MLS is Back Tournament and have climbed into first place in the Western Conference, one point clear of Sporting KC with a game in hand, and their 1.91 PPG clip is third-best in the league.
Raul Ruidiaz, Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris are performing at Best-XI levels. And as Sounder at Heart’s Jeremiah Oshan detailed after Friday’s 3-0 dispatching of LAFC, the Sounders are playing dominant soccer by any metric, be it the eye test, statistics or more advanced analytics.
This prompts a deja vu sensation for those of us who’ve followed MLS since Seattle’s arrival in 2009. The club have been consistently competitive across two coaching staffs, two ownership groups and a range of starring casts on the field. Besides the Supporters’ Shield, two MLS Cups and four U.S. Open Cups in their trophy case, there’s an 11-year streak of playoffs qualification for proof.
And now, even amid a season like no other, with a variety of external factors impacting life on the field, and with recent high-flyers LAFC and Atlanta United struggling, the Sounders are still relentlessly marching on.
How have they done it? I delved into this in the run-up to their MLS Cup win back in November, and many of the factors persist. Ahead of their latest meeting with Cascadia rivals the Portland Timbers tonight (10 pm ET | TV & streaming), here’s an ABC primer.
Seattle travel a lot in a given season due to their perch on the northwest corner of the continent. They also play home games on an artificial-turf field and routinely sign (and depend on) established stars and veteran contributors. Yet their industry-leading sports science and performance staff generally keeps them fit and firing, especially when it counts – and perhaps just as importantly, helps the technical staff select players well-suited to the particular demands of MLS.
Take pivotal playmaker and midfield engine Nico Lodeiro. The Sounders not only wielded the financial power to splash out a transfer fee to Boca Juniors reported at nearly $6 million and pay him a seven-figure salary. They also scouted the Uruguayan at length to build a physical and psychological profile, then kept him healthy and productive with their high-tech approach to physiology.
His player page points to the results: 27 or more league starts per full season (and he’s on pace for a similar percentage of this year’s games), double-digit assist numbers and a healthy goal contribution as well.
HIghlights: Seattle Sounders vs. LAFC
It’s an imperfect comparison, but consider another influential and expensive MLS Designated Player, Jozy Altidore, who consolidates Toronto FC’s place in the MLS elite when fit but has lost ample time due to injuries over the years, with his team typically suffering as a result.
Seattle have consistently found an equilibrium between dynamism and stability, both on the pitch and in the boardroom. Prioritizing the spine of their team has laid a foundation for consistency through the years, with the likes of Lodeiro, Stefan Frei, Chad Marshall, Ozzie Alonso, Brad Evans, Cristian Roldan and Gustav Svensson anchoring both the lineups and the locker room.
They’ve had just two head coaches that entire time, Brian Schmetzer (a Sounders player in the club’s pre-MLS days) and his predecessor Sigi Schmid. And two general managers, Adrian Hanauer (now a member of the ownership group) and Garth Lagerwey. Sporting director Chris Henderson is another long-serving executive who’s been quietly but crucially effective. And the club – thanks in no small part to its region, which routinely rates highly in North American quality-of-life rankings – has generally been a desirable place to live and work, from the heads of the organization to the newest intern.
Success tends to invite opportunities from elsewhere, and the Rave Green have navigated the challenges that can bring, too. There’s been a bit more turnover in their attacking ranks with standouts like Fredy Montero, Obafemi Martins and Eddie Johnson moving on after distinguished contributions, albeit usually for worthwhile assets in return.
This might be the most important aspect of all. Seattle hit the top flight with big ambitions and have held themselves to that standard, making themselves a central feature of their area’s sporting landscape and demolishing a variety of MLS records from attendance to merchandise and beyond (at least until Atlanta United came along in 2017).
That mentality also drives the team itself. I asked Oshan, who has covered the Sounders as long and as comprehensively as anyone, what it is about this club that keeps it in constant contention for honors, and he pointed to the enduring presence of leaders and example-setters who effectively “articulate organizational expectations” even when the chips are down.
“I think the culture of winning is pretty strong,” said the Sounder at Heart editor in chief. “And that's a byproduct of having not just players who have been here, but coaches who were also players and have many years of time with the club, an owner who literally helped build the club and has been around for nearly two decades and has made sure to keep employees around for long periods.
“You can safely say that every player knows that they aren't just the defending MLS Cup champs, for instance, but that they've also never missed the playoffs. Even when the team is toiling away, they know the expectation is that they will pull it together and make a late push.”
We’ll have to wait and see whether Seattle can defend their perch this fall. It’s already clear, though, that they’ll be right in the mix at the business end of the season.