As we reflect on another end to a Sounder's MLS season, I have found myself pretty caught up on the fact that this offseason might be significantly pivotal. This belief stems from the fact that from where I sit this will be winter break in which Things Must Change.
The conventional wisdom indicates that it is far better to make a change a year too early rather than a year too late (for a prime local sports example refer to the departure of Matt Hasselbeck from the Seattle Seahawks). If you believe that cycles are conveniently broken in to time spans that correspond to the number of fingers on a conventional human hand, then it's high time to start pondering what might be next. Either that, or you could just admit that we're entering our 4th consecutive offseason of "this'll be the year we put it all together".
This may not even mean replacing Sigi or Adrian - although I have said I would like to see the club hire a GM and kick Hanauer up to the role of Club President, if for no other reason to increase the brain trust. It's not like these guys are hurting financially. Good managers, executives, and coaches really ought to be able to adjust. I would even go so far as to say that an inability to adjust in and of itself constitutes a pretty damn good reason for sacking someone.
Look, even I will admit that it seems a trifle odd to even be talking about all this given the fact that to a large degree the first 4 years of this club have been like a rocketship to the moon. Four US Open Cup finals in 4 years with 3 wins, 2 consecutive CCL knockout round advancements along with this past season's machine like 4 for 4 in the group stage, and being one of the three elite teams the last 4 years (along with RSL and LAG) in terms of cumulative regular season success will do that. Actually, I even sympathize with the large segment of Sounders fans who, despite this most recent setback, see no reason not to be perfectly content with what this team has accomplished since their MLS birth.
But the sad truth may be that the Sounders are a solidly above-average side that has managed to parlay their cachet into a unique position in the league pecking order -somewhere below New York Red Bull and L.A. Galaxy but above everyone else - which enables them to keep their heads constantly above water in the staunchly parity-driven MLS. Essentially, the Sounders appear to be on a path which has them on an "always good, but never great" trajectory. Of course, this is hardly horrible. You will always find those that will eagerly defend the Sounders position, happy to point out that we could be the Portland Timbers (or FC Toronto, or New England Revolution, or...), and of course they are absolutely right.
But what of this greatness, and what can we reasonable ask for? The MLS Cup has proven itself to be a total crapshoot. The Supporters Shield will always be seen as secondary, and is greatly diminished in value with unbalanced scheduling. The CCL title is the biggest prize this club could win, but we would need to beat a Mexican team in a two-legged tie first.
Perhaps the next level is to be the innovator, to be THAT club, the one Jonathon Wilson's of the next generation will write about. Maybe the Sounders are on a mission from god, overlooking the year-to-year results but instead keeping their sights set on nothing short of revolutionizing soccer in America.
What we have seen for 4 years is the team has defaulted to the same basic idea. There have been some twists and turns, but the same basic approach, which has been dubbed "Sigi's arrow" has largely persisted. Start with a contemporarily conventional back 4, throwing Alonso in front as a bulldog. The midfield will be a more withdrawn central box-to-box type between to attacking, outside midfielders (despite much discussion in Sounders land over the years, the team has almost exclusively employed attacking mids on the wings). Up front will be Fredy Montero (or whoever is filling in for him) in a "free" role along with a more traditional "center forward" type. Find a 'keeper with European experience who can boss around the defense and your set. That's what the Sounders run. Pretty much everyone knows this by now.
I've written in the past that MLS teams, quite by necessity, usually need to be system driven. And there's no use glossing over the reason: the lower skill level, relative to the trend-setting European and South American leagues. No one in their right mind is going to run a system as fluid as Barca's because they don't have Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets. This isn't rocket science. If your first-choice right back makes $65K a year, and your 2nd choice makes $50K, there's really no reason to not take a "plug and play" approach. Spend your DP money and the gentlemen who score your goals and have the rest of your side rely on the classic anglo-american brand of discipline, grit, and determination.
Soccer is a game that finds itself sometimes maddeningly resistant to micro-management, and the best players on the best teams will always have that freedom that is unique to the game, in fact the very reason it is called the beautiful game. The increase in skill and quality compared to the fluidity and freedom of systems is not necessarily a strictly linear relationship, but there is an undeniable correlation. Yes, the game will always require the dogged efforts of the defensive midfielder who falls back to cover for the center back who drifted wide to cover for the fullback who pushed forward to cover for the winger moving centrally, but the primary difference is that your typical Bundesliga holding midfielder could probably easily play forward in MLS, if he really had to.
It just might be incumbent that this team, if nothing else, is the one that stays ahead of the curve; that for lack of a better way to put it, "tries shit". When Zlatan Ibrahimavic scored that 4th goal against England he was doing just that. great players try shit, and when it works they're geniuses and when it doesn't you shrug you shoulders. It is one of those wonderful little things that make up the essence of the game, and turn a game with a high boredom threshold into something so addicting.
So, if nothing else, this is what I hope is on the minds of the Sounders braintrust. After all, pragmatism is so damn boring.
Editor's Note: By try shit, Jake is saying about the on-field tactical and strategic identity of a club. Ajax in the 70s with Total Football or now as a great Academy system that sell on to others. Lyon with their application of Moneyball in the early 2000s. Real Madrid are the Galacticos buying everyone they can (every league has a team that does this. see Galaxy, LA). Chivas (the real one) have their Mexican heritage policy. There are many ways for a club to stand out, even if in a league without much prestige.