Only twice have the Seattle Sounders failed to earn a major trophy in their seven years in MLS. While they did win the Cascadia Cup for the first time since 2011, the year fluctuated between greatness and sorrow. Grading individual elements that compose the team and organization show that fluctuation as well.
Some parts of the 2015 Sounders were amazing. Others were depressing. A few were so inconsistent that a single grade is difficult. As the offseason cranks into full force the major components of on-field success, the portions on which to judge those components, and various off-field elements can be assessed. In general the club is older than most, was hit with a wave of injuries at once and were not well prepared for the stresses the Gold Cup put on the roster. There are reasons to hope that 2016 will be better, but it is clear 2015 did not meet anyone's expectations.
Whenever Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins played the attack was virtually unstoppable. With just one of them on the field, players like Lamar Neagle, Chad Barrett, and Marco Pappa had success of their own. On top of the Clinfemi jaeger, the team also added Nelson Haedo Valdez and Andreas Ivanschitz. Only injuries prevented an A here.
Somehow the Sounders put zero players in the league's Keeper and Defender of the Year conversation. That didn't matter as the unit of Stefan Frei/Chad Marshall/Brad Evans/Tyrone Mears and a rotational cast of fill-ins mostly at left back put up the best Goals Against Average in MLS (tied with Vancouver). They did this while missing Osvaldo Alonso for a dozen games. While the Sounders did not prevent shots, they did prevent shots from dangerous spaces.
When given the opportunity to shine during the Dire Days, the depth failed. With just one more win or two more draws during this time, the Sounders would have had a chance at qualifying for the CCL and avoided the play-in round, which wore down the starters that remained healthy.
Regular Season: C+
It was an adequate finish to the season, even if it took a roller-coaster ride to get there. If the goal of the regular season is to compete for the Supporters' Shield in September/October while setting the team up for a playoff run, they came near meeting those goals, but ultimately didn't quite get there. The reasons and faults were numerous.
US Open Cup: F-
What's lower than a "F"? We're going with F-, just to drive home the point that this was a truly disastrous Open Cup campaign. The Red Card Wedding didn't just end the chance at a fifth US Open Cup, it nearly destroyed the season and potentially made them worse for 2016's tournament run (Dempsey still has a suspension to serve).
CONCACAF Champions League: Incomplete, but a B+ so far
Sigi Schmid again guided a mostly reserve side through the Group Stage of the CCL. This was the one place where the reserve players showed their mettle, helping the Sounders win what was widely considered the toughest group. The poor seeding does mean that the club will take on defending CCL-champion Club America in February, which could spell an early exit.
Beating the LA Galaxy was wonderful, but the goal is to do more than just beat the Galaxy. The playoff field at least looked beatable and failing to advance beyond FC Dallas despite being minutes away from doing so leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Transfer Window: A+
A summer that brought in a DP, a near DP player, and two quality starters cannot be considered anything but a success. It was Garth Lagerwey's first dip into player acquisition for the Sounders and it was quickly clear that he could be active. He took the data and relationships that Chris Henderson's group established, the new MLS rule of TAM and boom! the Ideal XI was instantly better. The only shame was that the group he assembled never got to play together.
TV ratings continue to be strong. The pace of commercial sponsorship continues to build. The club set another attendance record. All reports are that merchandise continues to sell well. The NINETY opened -- Sounder at Heart even hosted two viewing parties there -- and that helped increase general attention to the brand.
Fan/Supporter Relations: C
Continued problems with getting access to Matchpass points and the failure to communicate the ticketing changes cast a shadow on the business side of the fan/club relationship. The change away from Ross Fletcher had poor communication of cause and generated negative press on a part of the club that isn't often criticized.
The brand new USL side struggled to meet its promised business goals (lower than expected attendance, few relationships with local businesses, intermittent shuttles), was disappointing when ousted from the US Open Cup (Ezra blew up at the referees) and lost in the first round of the playoffs. It's success in terms of developing players is debatable, as they did produce Andy Craven and gave Oniel Fisher valuable minutes before he got a regular role with the first team. But S2 also failed to provide as much playing time as expected for Academy players and only officially signed one academy alum directly. Ezra Hendrickson's connections in the Caribbean seem to be bearing fruit as Oalex Anderson should be expected to be an MLS player someday.
Academy and Alums: B
The biggie here is Jordan Morris and his continued development, but he's not the only one that looks like a future MLS player. Duncan McCormick grew with S2. Seyi Adekoya and David Olsen are scoring threats with UCLA and Seattle, respectively. Jordan Schweitzer and Tosh Samkange are doing well with the University of Denver. Jalen Markey is having success with Oregon State. The UW could practically be a USL side built primarily from Academy alums.
But the youth Academy didn't perform quite as well on the field as in year's past. They did put players into the U15 (Daniel Robles, Ben Huynh) and U18/U20 (Victor Mansaray) picture. Over the Summer they added two talents to the U18/20 scene (Nick Hinds, Pablo Pelaez).
The expectations in Seattle are high. A Cascadia Cup is neat, but falls well short of the level of silverware that has become an expectation. While seasons without MLS Cups can be successful, ones without any major trophy and failure to qualify into the next CONCACAF Champions League cycle are not to be expected, nor accepted. A C- is a passing grade, but a clear indication that it isn't good enough. It reflects that the team may need to change coaches and will certainly be making major personnel changes as it looks to correct what happened in 2015 while returning to the strong performances of five of its seven MLS seasons.