When Steve Zakuani went down with a season-ending injury, things were looking pretty bleak for the Seattle Sounders. When it was learned just a few days later that O'Brian White was out indefinitely with a mysterious blood clot, it was quickly starting to look like a lost season. Over the course of the next few weeks, the season went through some fits and starts, never quite looking hopeless, but giving limited indication that a turnaround was forthcoming.
Rock bottom, as it were, came on May 25 when the Sounders lost 1-0 at home to FC Dallas. It wasn't the worst performance, but it seemed to perfectly encapsulate how the season had gone up to that point. The Sounders out shot FC Dallas 19-7, held possession for 65 percent of the match and, most frustratingly, failed to find the back of the net.
Little did any reasonable observer know that it also marked the turning point of the season. Since that loss, the Sounders have gone unbeaten in 11 straight games across all competitions -- including a 6-0-3 record in MLS -- advanced to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals for the fifth straight year and put themselves in position to make a run at the Supporters' Shield. They've also put together a run that is more impressive than any stretch of games strung together by any previous Sounders team.
During this 11-match stretch, the Sounders have won eight games and outscored their opponents by 10 goals. In the previous two years, the Sounders have never won more than seven in an 11-game span and the most they've ever outscored their opponents by was nine. The 23 goals scored in 11 matches also marks a high-water mark for a MLS Sounders team.
As you can probably guess, the two periods that even come close to this level of success were the opening 11-game stretch of the 2009 season and the stretch of games that came toward the end of last year. There are numerous reasons to think this team is better than either of those somewhat obvious numbers.
The 2009 squad, for instance, started off like gang-busters but never came close to really sustaining this kind of success. By the time they got to Match 11 -- which included a U.S. Open Cup qualifier -- they were in the midst of a four-match run of ties and had already lost twice. From a qualitative standpoint, that team had not been tested in anyway like this one has. There had been no major injuries and things had really fallen into place almost perfectly.
You shouldn't have too hard of a time remembering just how impressive that run in 2010 was, but it, too pales in comparison to this team. That chunk of success followed what was easily the worst run the Sounders have ever endured and so was a bit more extreme from a juxtapositional standpoint.
But it also wasn't quite this impressive. Sure, the Blaise Nkufo led team was good, even very good. The six-match winning streak that made up the bulk of that team's run still stands as the longest in Sounders history. But aside from a 4-0 pasting of the Columbus Crew, they were basically winning one-goal affairs. The only other game that was decided by more than one-goal during their best 11-game stretch was a 2-0 win over Marathon in CONCACAF Champions League, a game that didn't even feature many of the Sounders' starters. That team was pretty close to full strength as well, with Jhon Kennedy Hurtado the only notable player missing significant time.
This current Sounders team has been different. The most obvious is the fact that numerous starting-quality players have missed time at various points. Osvaldo Alonso, Hurtado, Brad Evans, Fredy Montero and Mauro Rosales have all been forced to sit out at least one game during this stretch, to say nothing of players like Steve Zakuani and O'Brian White who have not played at all.
This team has also been forced to come from in-game adversity in a way those previous teams never did. The 11-game stretch includes a road win in which the Sounders were down to 10 men, a win at Rio Tinto Stadium, a win in which they blew a 2-0 lead and three victories in which they erased at least one deficit and two where they trailed in the second half.
If 100 percent healthy, you could make a pretty compelling argument that 18 current Sounders would stand a pretty good chance of starting for almost any team in the league. Alvaro Fernandez and Fredy Montero, only a couple months ago being called DP flops by many in the national media, are suddenly two of the hottest players in MLS. Mauro Rosales, a few months ago considered totally washed up, is a surprise MVP contender. Erik Friberg has emerged as one of the top MLS imports. Tyson Wahl is suddenly a dangerous attacking full back. Even Roger Levesque is showing a remarkable nose for goal that many teams would certainly love to have.
The scary part is that this team is poised to actually get better. White could return to action as soon as this week against Manchester United. There are still lots of reasons to believe a third DP could join the fold. Hurtado is still working his way back to 100 percent health.
Who knows what the future holds, but on the MLS sliding scale of how good you can ever expect your team to really be, it doesn't get much better than this.