It’s become the most dependable tradition of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs: the Seattle Sounders right in the thick of the championship hunt.
The Rave Green have never experienced an MLS campaign without postseason participation, and were one of the more emphatic winners in this year’s Round One as they clinically dispatched LAFC for the second year in a row. Ahead of their Western Conference Semifinal against FC Dallas on Tuesday (9:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info), it’s made them a hot pick to defend their 2019 title, with most oddsmakers fancying their chances as the best of the eight teams remaining in the bracket.
“Well, you need good players, you need good fans, you need good ownership, you need good organization,” head coach Brian Schmetzer told reporters when asked about his side’s longevity at the top in a Friday conference call. “We have a lot of things going for us here. You need good assistant coaches, they do a great job. It requires a lot of work, but it's something that I'm very proud of, that this franchise has been successful.”
Amid MLS parity, roster turnover and even a global viral pandemic, Seattle’s decade-plus of consistent contention is striking. And with two trophy hoists from three final trips over the past four years, they’ve found another gear under Schmetzer. Which quite rightly provokes debate over the potential application of the “dynasty” label, and possibly even that of MLS GOATs.
Reign or Shine. 🔆 pic.twitter.com/Cb2pdqS0QJ— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) November 29, 2020
So will another Cup run this fall earn this crop of Sounders that best-ever distinction? I asked someone who’s been around the league since its inception as a player, club executive and television pundit, won an MLS Cup of his own back in 2002 and loves to invoke the subjective but sexy “superclub” sobriquet: Alexi Lalas.
“I think regardless if they go on and win it or not [this year], they are deserved members of that elite,” the FOX analyst said of Seattle.
“Look, it's a league built on manufactured parity, and that’s one of the things I love about the league, but it makes it that much more difficult to be a superclub,” added the former New England Revolution, MetroStars, Kansas City Wizards and LA Galaxy center back. “And they have held on that upper echelon type of [status] for a number of years. I'm trying to think of when their last season that would be looked at as a failure was.”
Technically speaking, that might be 2018, when they fell to the Portland Timbers in a wild Western Conference Semifinals series decided on penalties – and even that setback did not kill their MLS-record streak of consecutive home playoff wins, which now stands at 13 matches and counting. And perhaps it proves the point. In four-plus years under Schmetzer, it can be argued anything short of a trip to the championship game is an anomaly, a disappointment.
As much as MLS is constructed to give everyone a fair shot, the clubs that have hoisted multiple MLS Cup trophies are a select group. Only six can claim that honor: the LA Galaxy with five Cups, D.C. United with four and Houston, San Jose, Sporting and Seattle level on two apiece. Fewer still have woven together multiple such triumphs with the same core group.
LA’s peak reaped three titles in four years from 2011-14, led by Bruce Arena and the David Beckham-Landon Donovan-Robbie Keane troika. Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno’s D.C. set the early standard with three of the league’s first four championships.
The Sounders’ current iteration seems to have every bit the same high standards for success as those – “it’s built into their DNA, it’s built into their culture,” said Schmetzer of his group – and similarly impactful stars, the attacking “Big Three” of Nico Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris, who’ve been particularly productive in the postseason:
- Ruidiaz – 8 goals, 6 assists in 7 career MLS playoff matches
- Lodeiro – 8g, 8a in 18 playoff matches
- Morris – 6g, 3a in 13 playoff matches
From getting their big-ticket signings right to maximizing returns from domestic players (including, increasingly, academy products) and investing wisely in data and analytics, Seattle have done a little bit of everything well. And that includes their large fanbase, vibrant Lumen Field setting and strong presence in their market.
“You can't undervalue how important that environment is, with the 60,000 people there and how relevant the team is to that city and market. Even the color resonates,” said Lalas. “They own that city as much from a soccer perspective as any of those other teams that I talked about, and maybe even more so than some of them.
“I, at times, make fun of my friends up in Seattle – they invented the game and they invented the superclub and they invented everything else,” he added with a chuckle. “But I do have to take my hat off to what they have done. They are important to the league and they bring value to the league with what they are doing on the ground, and that consistency.”
Their own high expectations require the Sounders to not merely be a part of this conversation, but to end it, by going on to finish the job with another trip to the winners’ podium next month. That’s a lofty standard, and that’s how they like it.