Seattle Fans should look at the big picture. The Sounders focus on infrastructure pays huge dividends on the field.(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Since I last wrote about our intrepid team, they have played three games in short succession; all wins. The Sounders' congested May schedule is helping the team play catch up with the rest of the league in terms of games played. By this Saturday's game against Real Salt Lake, the Sounders will have played as many games as Sporting Kansas City. With games against FC Dallas and RSL, we should have an even better picture of where the Sounders sit in the overall MLS power structure this season.
This week's Power Rankings see the Sounders sitting atop both the MLS and Soccer By Ives polls and in second place in the SB Nation rankings. Yet, for the most part, the quality of the Sounder's 2012 side continues to fly under the conciousness of the national media and league fan base. Their advancement up the rankings apprears to be as much by default as by admiration. Losses by San Jose and KC being as responsible for their position as any Sounders' accomplishments. Dismissals of the Seattle side litter the internet and even the MLS rankings don't really speak to the quality of the team as much as the internet presence of the Seattle fan base. Fredy Montero's wonder strike is being conceded as the Goal of the Week in many corners because of the perception that Seattle's fan base will stuff the ballot box. Blog commenters chalk the Sounders' record up to the weakness of their opponents and the fact that the team has played 75% of their games at CenturyLink Field. The San Jose Earthquakes, D.C. United, Sporting KC, RSL and even the New York Red Bulls seem to be getting more attention in many circles.
Yet, the Sounders have the best Points Per Game average in the league. They have only conceded three goals all season; two GTWs and a soft PK taken by the league's leading scorer. All of this while being decimated by injuries to key players and starting 8 different lineups and 21 of the 30 players they have on their roster. Think about that for a moment. They have started 21 different players in 8 games, have a 6-1-1 record and have only given up one goal in the run of play. Clearly this is a side that deserves recognition. Something squirrelly is going on here. How can a team with these stats be getting the Rodney Dangerfield treatment?
Part of the issue is simply annoyance with Seattle's fan base. For the most part, we are well-behaved in public. We are Seattlites after all. The annoyance stems from the fact that there are just so many of us. We're organized, internet saavy and vocal. Everywhere you look, you'll find us in droves. In some MLS circles, I am certain that we are considered a plague of locusts. This causes people to want to dislike us and the team we support.
The other major problem is that the Sounders are not firing on all cylinders. The team wins with 21 different players, but none of the team's stars is having a stunning impact yet on the team's offense. Fredy has scored one goal. He is playing some of the best soccer of his career, but the rounded quality of his game isn't showing up on the stat sheet in a way that captures the imagination of casual fans. Consequently, all the national media focus on was his lack of scoring. The local fans see the difference. I'm certain that MLS coaching staffs are not amused. But the average fan has missed the memo. And with Mauro Rosales, Alvaro Fernandez and Eddie Johnson all missing significant time due to injury, the team's vaunted offense isn't burying people.
A second issue is that for all of the team's defensive prowess, the Sounders don't play a typical 'American' style of defense. Brawn doesn't describe Seattle. Instead the team has a defense based on precision and finesse. Opposing pressure is funneled and delayed. Rave Green swarms the ball like bottle flies. Communication and work ethic are by words. Seattle continues to master the art of defensive recovery. Players break into the clear and then the moment they slow up to marshall the offense, a Seattle player picks their pocket. Seattle has eight defensive stalwarts, but only Osvaldo Alonso gets any media attention. And he isn't a typical defensive center mid. He's just stunningly effective.
Seattle suffers from expectations. Fans expect Seattle to overwhelm their opponents. When Santos Laguna hung a 6 spot on them in the CCL Quarterfinals, the casual MLS fan questioned the team's character. Injuries followed that performance and so did a light schedule. The result was that other teams raced to commanding point totals and Seattle plodded along racking up points they were expected to win. When Seattle didn't bury teams, no one stopped to look at the roster. They just said that the Seattle team was nothing to fear. People didn't expect anything from San Jose or D.C. United. Their performance has been deservedly lauded. Seattle wins but underwhelms the casual fan. Seattle's fan base singing their praises seems like local bias.
That's just fine with me. I see the makings of a champion on display. Let other teams bask in the limelight. Our team doesn't need a target painted on their chest this early in the season. I don't care if the team wins ugly. Bank the points and leave the opposition with nothing. Keep tempering the bench depth in the flames of meaningful games. Create multiple tactical options and rotate the players until opposing fans get dizzy. If opposing coaches suffer vertigo from the Sounders roster, so much the better. I don't care that opposing fans don't respect Seattle's defense. Let them blame the result on the refs, sun spots and missed opportunities. Any Seattle fan who looks closely understands why San Jose and DC scored one questionable goal against Seattle between them and yet scored 8 goals total against each other. How much better can either of those teams be with the players currently on their rosters? How much better can Seattle be? Just how scary is an MLS team that can effectively play 21 different players including 3 rookies and start a season 6-1-1?
Championship franchises build infrastructure and focus on minute details. They win games professionally. Early in Seattle's MLS experience, the team won spectacular games and lost the boring games. The 2012 Sounders stockpile boring points. They earn backhanded compliments and wins. All the while annealing their team chemistry and solidifying their understanding of how to play together. They are building the foundation for both short term success and long term consistency.
During the same three-game period the Sounders franchise has done a multitude of tiny things that show just how focused the organization is on the bigger picture. Roger Levesque was just named the MLS Humanitarian of the Month. The team's website featured an article discussing the benefits that the Sounders bring to the local college soccer scene. The Sounder At Heart Depth Chart included information about potential Home Grown players and the discussion invariably tracked toward how the Sounders are being patient. Throughout the period, news about the Reserve league and the U23 squads dotted the landscape. But what really impressed me was the team's level of proactive involvement in taking the long view. They aren't just talking about how the team benefits the local college community, they are actively leveraging and building relationships with the community in ways that are mutually beneficial. The team isn't jumping to sign any Home Grown players until they are ready to make the adjustment to the MLS and have a greater chance to be successful. The team isn't rushing injured players back into the breach. It is trusting it's bench to deliver. Bench players are being allowed to develop and grow in a culture of excellence and expectation. Players earn their way into the 18 and then into the XI. David Estrada talked about being ready when an opportunity arises. Long range planning permeates the Sounders organization.
The culture of sports often focuses on the present at all costs. What have you done lately becomes a mantra. Knee jerk managerial decisions dominate the headlines. For many franchises success becomes a Will-o-the-Wisp that they chase through the fog. Their decisions multiply into perpetually lost seasons. Superficiallity kills sports teams as quickly as any business. Pressure to succeed now can overwhelm an organization. Yet, the world's most perpetually successful sports organizations are the ones that constantly focus on infrastructure. Manchester United has dominated the English Premiere League for the past 20 years for a reason. Look at their infrastructure. Look at how their academy develops players. Barcelona has been a perpetual power. Look at their infrastructure. You don't need to look any farther than the story of Lionel Messi to understand the potential benefits of taking the long view. How many American teams would identify a potential player at 8 years old and then help finance expensive medical treatment on the off chance that some day he would be successful with their parent club? Is it any wonder that Messi is loyal to Barca?
The Seattle Sounders are not a team that has been constructed to win a single MLS Cup title. This is a team that has been constructed to give itself a chance to perpetually compete for multiple titles. Four years into the franchise's MLS history and they are entering their 3rd CONCACAF Champion's League tournament, they have 3 MLS playoff appearances, they have won 3 Lamar Hunt US Open Cups and they were last year's runner up for the Supporter's Shield. This breeds a culture of excellence and expectation. It aids the team's recruiting efforts. Both Adam Johansson and Michael Gspurning talked openly about the opportunity to play in the CCL tournament. All of these games gives the team opportunities to hone their depth and rely on their entire roster to participate in the team's success.
Other fans continue to talk about how Seattle cannot call itself a successful franchise until they win MLS Cups and Supporter's Shields. They talk about how the Lamar Hunt Cup is a minor trophy. Let them think that way. I know that the US Open Cup titles have led to three straight CCL berths. These berths in turn lead to recruiting opportunities. If other teams want to pass on that option, so much the better for Seattle. I can be patient as a fan. I can wait for my team to earn its accolades. Champions build infrastructure and this team is doing just that.