Let's face it: It was not nearly as fun to be a fan of the Seattle Sounders in 2012 as it has in previous years. To a degree, that was inevitable.
This being the fourth year of their MLS existence, expectations have clearly changed. Maybe the first three years spoiled us with U.S. Open Cup titles and playoff appearances, but we wanted more. Frankly, I'm not sure winning the Open Cup or, especially, the Cascadia Cup would have really changed how we felt about this year.
More so than ever before, this was the season Sounders fans would have been satisfied with nothing less than MLS silverware. Without the Supporters' Shield or MLS Cup in the trophy case, this offseason was bound to be filled with a sense of wanting.
To be sure, there were some very significant highs, but they were usually followed by lows that gave it all a very roller-coaster-y feel. The season started with a win at home over mighty Santos Laguna (only to be immediately followed by a reality-checking loss the following week). The Sounders opened the MLS campaign with a franchise-best 7-1-1 start (only to be immediately followed by a franchise-worst nine-match winless run). They had arguably their most impressive U.S. Open Cup run (only to have it end in the title game with a frustrating penalty shootout loss). The highest high was the playoff victory over Real Salt Lake (only to be followed by probably the lowest low in the 3-0 loss to the Galaxy).
But it wasn't just the results that seemed to take the "fun" out of the season. Along the way, it seemed like there were near constant personnel issues.
Whether it was entirely his fault, Eddie Johnson often found himself in the middle of them. It started with the trade that brought him here, as the Sounder at Heart community was divided in ways previously unseen. It continued with his being fined for making an inappropriate gesture toward Chicago Fire fans and the altercation he got into with the San Jose Earthquakes bench following a win in the Open Cup. There were also rumors of him getting into several fights with teammates during training.
But Johnson wasn't the only one. Jeff Parke got into a rather public disagreement with Sigi Schmid over playing time. There was the constant speculation about Alvaro Fernandez's future. Mario Martinez went to Twitter to complain about how little he was being used. The leadership of the team was almost constantly questioned. The final controversy ended up being Marc Burch being suspended for using a gay slur during the win over RSL.
To put it simply, this was a tumultuous year.
Perhaps this can all be written off to being the byproduct of a maturing team and fanbase. More than 900,000 fans came to Sounders home games this season. There were six crowds of more than 44,000. The Sounders have clearly moved from local oddity to a part of the Seattle sports landscape. The more people who pay attention, the more they expect. This team is under a microscope the way no other MLS team really ever has been. That's not necessarily a bad thing.
It also means this is probably the most important offseason in franchise history, perhaps even more so than the one that preceded the first year in MLS.
I could see it going one of two ways: The team could choose to make small changes or they could make large sweeping ones that leave next year feeling almost entirely divorced from this one.
A case can surely be made that tweaking the periphery and maintaining cohesion would be smart. Sounder at Heart reader exSlacker did so in a recent FanPost. The talent sure seems to be here. Fredy Montero and Eddie Johnson have, at times, looked like one of the best forward tandems the league has ever seen. Christian Tiffert showed flashes of being the exact kind of presence the Sounders needed in the center of the park. Mauro Rosales still looks very effective when he's healthy. The defense allowed a mere 33 goals in 34 league matches and promises to be even better with Marcus Hahnemann as arguably the best backup in the league.
But there's also this nearly unshakable sense that the Sounders kind of lost their way this year. Maybe it's the loss of Roger Levesque. Maybe expectations have started to weigh them down. Maybe it's time for some real change.
I could envision a scenario where three new Designated Players come in. Just read between the lines a little and you can see the gears churning. Whether it was Sigi Schmid fawning over the LA Galaxy's highly-paid trio following the first leg of the conference finals or Adrian Hanauer suggesting on Nos Audietis that the team may need to spend more money on talent, it only take a little bit of imagination to see where this could be heading.
A lot of elements would obviously have to fall into place to make that happen. The Sounders can only "buy out" one contract, which means they'd have to figure out how to get a significant amount of allocation or find some willing trade partners or both. It also wouldn't be guaranteed to work.
This could be the craziest offseason in Sounders history (or it could be very quiet). I suggest you bookmark this page.