It would be silly to pretend as if the Seattle Sounders have gotten to this point in the season in a steady manner. The year started off horribly with three losses in the first four matches and the Sounders not getting their first win until their sixth match. It was the worst start in franchise history and there were some rightful grumblings about the appropriate time to really panic.
They followed that up with a six-match unbeaten streak which featured a pair of four-goal performances and four shutouts. It was an almost stunning display of dominance and had some of us talking about the Sounders being very serious MLS Cup contenders.
That was of course followed by an equally stunning collapse against the LA Galaxy in which the Sounders played about as bad as we've ever seen them and then the gut punch of crashing out of the U.S. Open Cup by losing to the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Mixed into the start was a historic run to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals in which the Sounders became the first MLS team to eliminate a Mexican opponent from the competition and came within one goal of doing it again.
We've of course had the excitement over signing Obafemi Martins mixed with the freakouts over his health, as well as more absences than seem humanely possible.
And yet, here we are 12 games into the season looking at what is the second best start in franchise history. The Sounders have gotten here despite facing the toughest schedule (according to Sagarin ratings). To put that into a little bit of added context, the San Jose Earthquakes have played the second toughest schedule and have three fewer points in three more matches. In fact, the other three teams that fill out the top 5 in terms of toughest schedule all have fewer points than the Sounders. Only three teams with the top 10 toughest schedules are ahead of the Sounders in the standings and the Sounders are within four points of all them.
Making this start all the more challenging is the oft-reported lack of lineup continuity. The Sounders have now used different starting lineups in all 17 of their matches across all competitions. The only player to start in every league game is Michael Gspurning and the only outfield player to appear in every league game is Mauro Rosales.
For the large part, this is not by choice. Aside from one or two clear instances of a player being benched, Sigi Schmid has been forced to change his lineups through a combination of health, suspensions and international absences. A total of 21 different players have started this year, with all of them doing so at least twice.
In some ways, it's actually kinda remarkable that the Sounders have held it together this well.
But what have we really learned about this iteration of the Sounders?
Deep, but not THAT deep
I'd say given the challenges the Sounders have faced, most teams would probably struggle. That said, it's probably time to admit that this team is not quite as deep as it was a couple years ago. I still think there are 15-16 players on the team that have played well enough to be deserve starters' minutes, but you can't just combine them willy-nilly and expect them to get results. The 1-3-1 record in the Reserve League should be a pretty good indicator of this.
There are clearly some players that are particularly important to have on the field. We've established that Osvaldo Alonso is one of them. I'd suggest that Djimi Traore and Brad Evans also qualify. I'd say the Sounders also need at least one of Mauro Rosales and Mario Martinez and one of Eddie Johnson and Obafemi Martins. This Saturday, the Sounders will only have Traore and Rosales among those players, something that will be a huge test.
They're as good as anyone, but still prone to disasters
Given a full complement of players on reasonable rest and at home, there's really no reason to think the Sounders aren't as good as any team in the league. But the Galaxy showed what can happen when the circumstances are less ideal. In that game, the Sounders were missing Alonso, on the road and a couple other minor distractions to deal with. It was a total and complete disaster.
That result should be cause for concern, but it's worth pointing out that the Galaxy suffered a similar defeat in not-so-dissimilar circumstances this week. When teams are as close in terms of talent as they are in MLS, these kinds of things can and do happen. The best we can probably hope for is that when the games get more important that the Sounders better positioned to handle it.
The other side of the coin is those three straight wins at Sporting KC and at home against the San Jose Earthquakes and FC Dallas. In all three, the Sounders showed both a resilience and ability to impose their will on pretty good teams. Sure, they needed a somewhat lucky late-game winner against KC, but they absolutely played well enough up until then to deserve a result. The win over the Earthquakes was downright dominant and they showed against Dallas that the talent gap between them and the Supporters' Shield leaders is virtually non-existant.
MLS Cup or bust
Whether they wanted it this way or not, the Sounders can now look at a summer schedule that is totally devoid of anything other than MLS games. It's going to be strange, as this is literally a situation the Sounders have never been in during their previous four seasons.
It's probably unfair to say that the excuses are now gone because I never really got the sense that the Sounders "blamed" their past failures on fixture congestion. At the same time, there's a pretty strong statistical correlation between the number of games a team plays across all competitions and how they fare in the playoffs. Assuming they can get there, the Sounders will head into the playoffs with "just" 39 games played across all competitions. That's the fewest they will have played since 2009 when they played 38 pre-playoff matches (including two friendlies). It's not just the extra minutes that will be saved, but also the wear and tear of flying all around the continent.
Of course, this singular focus will also make it tougher for us to find silver linings in this season. I suppose we'll always have that win over UANL Tigres, but by the end of the season, that will seem like a lifetime ago. The reality is that this team really must at least advance to the MLS Cup final (or maybe win the Supporters' Shield, but that still seems like a long shot) in order for this season to have any reasonable sense of progress attached to it.