We're now almost 48 hours removed from what I'm comfortable calling the most excruciating end to a Seattle Sounders season to date. It's not just that they were eliminated on penalty kicks for the first time, it's how the game even ended up there that is so rough.
I say this in all honesty: It still hurts to watch the highlights. I've made myself do it more times than is healthy at this point, but every time I see Chad Marshall pound in his header with the knowledge that less than two minutes later it will all be for naught ... it gives me a sickening feeling.
I also say this in complete honesty: This was the first time I truly, honestly felt confident that the Sounders would at least advance to an MLS Cup final. Even after they were mostly outplayed by FC Dallas in the second leg, I really liked their chances in the conference finals. Of course, that only makes the sense of loss that much harder to deal with.
Having the season end in such a frustrating fashion also makes assessing it harder than it has ever been.
This wasn't the abject disaster of 2013. That year wasn't just bombing out of the playoffs in the Western Conference semifinals, it was getting dominated by your biggest rival, winning just one of their final 10 games, losing to a NASL team in the U.S. Open Cup, bickering, in-fighting and a general sense that everything was falling apart.
This year had some genuine highlights. The Sounders not only managed to win what was widely considered to be the toughest CONCACAF Champions League group, but they also managed to reclaim the Cascadia Cup for the first since 2011. By all reports, the locker room was cohesive, with players getting along and focused on a single goal. When we look back on this year's roster, we'll scratch our heads wondering how it didn't come together. The shame will be that it literally never had a chance to.
At no point were the Sounders' best 11 players available at the same time. Whether it was injuries, international call-ups or suspensions, someone was always missing. Osvaldo Alonso missed 15 games (including all three playoff matches); Clint Dempsey missed 14 games; Obafemi Martins missed 13; we only got to see Román Torres play four times before he tore his ACL; Nelson Haedo Valdez never seemed to get fully fit; Brad Evans even missed eight games (including both in the FC Dallas series). At no point were all of those players on the field together, and there were far too many games when the Sounders were missing more than one of them, let alone players like Erik Friberg or Andreas Ivanschitz.
It's impossible not to look at this roster and wonder "what if?" What's even worse is that the window to find out may already be closed. We have no idea how many of these players will be back in 2016 or how much their skills will have diminished by then. It's no secret that this team has a limited window of success, we can only hope it's open a little bit longer.
I seriously have no idea what will happen with this team in the coming days, weeks and months. The recent comments from Garth Lagerwey, Sigi Schmid and countless pundits all hint that some significant change is in the offing, on the roster, on the sideline or possibly both.
Knowing all of this only makes the pain of Sunday linger. No matter what happens in the years to come, this year's team had the potential to be special. And it wasn't.