If you have been listening, reading, and watching closely over the last 5 years, you have been absorbing a well-crafted PR and marketing message from the Seattle Sounders. The gist of it has been "we are going to be a *big* club" and it doesn't take much to figure out exactly what they mean by that. They sent a message loud and clear in 2009, with season ticket holders getting matches against Chelsea, Barcelona, and then the MLS Cup final included as "friendlies" in their season ticket book. We've also been hearing it from the league, with MLS pushing the idea that they will be a "world class league" by 2022 (whatever that means). Don Garber has delivered numerous comments in this "MLS 2.0" era indicating the League's desire to have their teams start to establish themselves as "global brands".
But let's put aside the patent ridiculousness of some of those ideas, given the realities of the MLS and trying to run a team that operates within it. It doesn't take much for someone who has been living and breathing this club for the last several years to begin to get a bit cynical about all this. Yes, the Sounders have been good. Yes, their's was perhaps the most success franchise launch in modern North American professional sports. But as to some of the more grandiose notions that have been trickling down from above, It's patently absurd to take those at face value.
From where I sit, anyone accusing the fans and supporters of expecting too much is helping the Sounders relentless PR and marketing machine; they would love nothing more than to see the narrative they constructed about the Sounders being a "global brand" turn into the pie in the sky dreams of a fringe of delusional supporters. That allows them to properly manage the message and trumpet every successful maneuver that takes them a step up the ladder; being able to turn to those hungriest of fans and say "look, we're trying!"
If you look closely, you can see that even the Sounders management/ownership feels like the shine has come off. They are adding a 5th "all stadium" match next season - a move that could be clearly construed as looking to set yet another attendance record - and hinted that we could see another International "friendly" match this summer - despite the fact we seemed to have learned our lesson back in 2011 when we took a degrading 7-0 thrashing from Manchester United, then proceeded to whine about the Red Devils not fielding a weak enough team for us to compete with.
At some point we need to face facts. We have seen a 2-year decline from the team's peak in quality in 2011. This last season frankly could barely have ended more disastrously, with my last cogent memory being down 5-1 on aggregate to the Portland Timbers. We were given an off-season of some coded language of "focusing on MLS Cup" and saw sweeping changes to our personnel. Our biggest "offseason" acquisition was a move that wasn't complete until after the season started, was a player we expected to go 16 months without an offseason of his own, and now we're on the verge of loaning out in no small part because he wants to focus on making Nigeria's World Cup team.
We were told we would see "more direct play" and, if that was truly the intent, failed quite miserably at achieving that. We watched a team that often appeared clueless as to what to do with the ball other than just knock it around. Lacking midfield creativity, forwards were largely left to their own devices in trying to generate scoring opportunities. As a whole the Sounders were a rather resolute side, finding themselves as favorites for the Supporters Shield in September. But this success was largely due to a defense which rated among the 2 best in the League, before an inexplicable collapse in which they conceded 9 goals over 2 matches just 3 days apart in October - after which they never fully recovered their moxie.
The Sounders did manage to pull off the biggest headline grabber of the 2013 season in landing Clint Dempsey, but when we all pulled our jaws off the floor we slowly began to understand we were probably expecting to much from someone who only made their first appearance nearly 2/3rds of the way throughout the season. Beyond that, when the dust settled it certainly appeared as though the most significant DP acquisition in MLS history more or less fell into the team's lap.
There was a persistent narrative throughout the season about the constantly rotating first XI not helping the Sounders develop chemistry and cohesion, but even this turns out to be at least a bit misleading. On the season, the Sounders had 8 players start at least 24 matches, 11 (in total) start at least 17 or appear in at least 24, and 19 in total make at least 10 appearances. The latter two numbers exactly match league averages, with the first number being just 1 over the average of 7. the Sounders did have 27 players make at least one start - a somewhat high number for playoff teams - but not extraordinary given LA and RSL both had 26, and Colorado 30.
What we do know is that the same brain trust will be back to manage the roster churn this offseason - although this is not particularly encouraging given they oversaw the last two off-seasons which resulted in subsequent drops in quality over the next year. Despite a rather remarkable late-season collapse providing the perfect opportunity to replace Sigi Schmidt, ownership decided to give it another go. It doesn't feel like there are any compelling reasons to expect a drastic turnaround before next March. What this current group has proven is that they can field a team which will grind out enough results to keep their heads above the icy waters of MLS-brand mediocrity, ensuring themselves another playoff berth where they can once again roll the dice. Given the rather horrific record this team has in away playoff matches, there doesn't seem much reason for hope.
2014 will be the team's first since the Inaugural year to feature not a single CCL match, which is depressing in and of itself. The Sounders journey through CCL has been a highlight of the first 5 years, and we've watched the team grow before our very eyes in a competition that has provided us with some of the more memorable results and matches in our short history. CCL berths were provided by success in the USOC, aided in no small part by the team's willingness to buy home matches. With that mechanism mitigated, we remember that the Sounders have only qualified for one of the 3 spots through MLS play in 2011 - and that was because LA won the double - and we had already clinched through USOC to begin with.
Even the Cascadia Cup managed to elude is in a year where we were given a distinct advantage with 4 of 6 matches at home. If we believed Portland's win in the competition in 2012 was mainly due to their having 4 home matches that season, this shortcoming is particularly embarrassing. Then we were served up a thorough beating by the Timbers in the playoff's, a humbling helped in no small part by the desperate late-season switch to the diamond. This storyline, in and of itself, would be enough to force management changes at many of the clubs the Sounders claim to want to be in the company of.
There is a lot to like about being a soccer fan in Seattle, and a Sounder Supporter. A lot of this amounts to First World Problems in the highest regard, and I, of all people, fully understand this all needs to be properly contextualized. But within the context of being a resident of Sounderland in this moment, there are numerous reasons to feel agitated. A few weeks ago the Dave wrote about the bar being even higher, but I find that to be a incorrect narrative. The bar was set pretty high at least 2 years ago, if not even earlier; and if anything it has been lowered for this next off-season. That, by itself, is enough to cause at least some frustration.