The gulf in emotions before and after MLS Cup was shockingly wide. As sports fans, we’ve surely all experienced other losses in championship games. We may have even known what it was like to be roundly outplayed in those games.
But this year’s loss felt different. It wasn’t just that many of us went into the game fully expecting to win — data be damned — it’s that the Sounders never really looked up for it.
A few weeks later, I’m still stuck with a sensation that makes it hard to assess the season as a whole. The Sounders were almost undeniably the best team in the Western Conference. They only lost out to the Portland Timbers for the top regular-season finish by virtue of the goals-scored tiebreaker, despite having a better head-to-head record. They also had the West’s top goal-difference (+13, good for fourth best in the league) and the second-best defense (39 goals allowed, third best in the league).
They followed that up with a record-breaking run through the Western Conference playoffs, shattering the record for longest shutout streak and not allowing a single goal on their way to the final.
To top it off, they’ll return a group that includes 12 of the 13 players who featured in the MLS Cup final as well as Osvaldo Alonso and the newly acquired Waylon Francis.
By most reasonable assessments, 2017 should feel like something very close to a complete success and we should all be excited for 2018.
And yet, I can’t shake this sensation that the 2-0 loss to Toronto FC in the season’s final game has cast a giant cloud. I’m sure the feeling will eventually pass — especially if the Sounders make an impact signing or two in the offseason — but right now, it’s hard to escape the feeling that TFC was better in 2017 and promises to be better going forward. To be the second best team in MLS — especially when the first best is making a pretty solid claim at being the best ever — is definitely a first-world problem, but it’s a problem nonetheless.
The Sounders have long aimed for being something better than a good MLS team. It can easily be argued that they’ve been much more than that through their first nine seasons. They’re the only team to have qualified for the playoffs in all nine of those seasons, have the best overall record and have won the most trophies (excluding Canadian teams) in that time. But they’ve never been the undisputed “best” team over the course of a full season. That’s something TFC can now claim, if even only for one year.
That’s probably not an entirely fair way to judge the Sounders — or any team -- but it is the standard they’ve set.
Some stray thoughts to send us into the offseason:
What’s a tactician?
One of the consistent criticisms of Brian Schmetzer following the Sounders’ MLS Cup final defeat is that he was simply out-coached. I’m not going to try to refute that. In this game, that does appear to be the case.
While admitting that I’m nothing like a serious tactician myself, I’ve seen precious little evidence that this is a consistent problem for Schmetzer. A main point of criticism from the final seems to be that people would have liked to have see him make an earlier sub and/or use Morris differently. That’s fair, and certainly a valid thing to second-guess him over. I don’t see how that’s evidence of a lack of tactical nous, though.
The other bit of evidence, as articulated by Talgrath most recently, is his lack of formational adjustment early in the season when the Sounders were struggling. Again, there’s validity here. Maybe a formational change was in order.
But these are differences of opinion, not proof that Schmetzer lacks a tactical mind. It’s entirely possible that Schmetzer just had a different plan, and considering his record (30-14-12 including playoffs) and his propensity for making positive halftime adjustments, I’m inclined to think he has a pretty good understanding of the game’s finer points.
Adding a voice
That said, bringing in someone like Preki makes a ton of sense. This is a two-time MLS MVP and a one-time MLS coach of the year, who has a long personal relationship with Schmetzer. While Preki has carried a reputation of being a bit difficult to work with at times, no one has ever questioned his soccer mind.
If there’s one thing Schmetzer has drawn near universal praise for, it’s his ability to work with a variety of personalities. I’m inclined to think he’ll figure out how to get the most out of Preki’s strengths.
There’s a lot to be admired about the Sounders roster, one that managed to perform at a high level despite the loss of several key figures along the way. That’s by design, as Schmetzer has repeated this “next man up” mantra and Garth Lagerwey has spoken often of his inclination to build a roster that allows the manager to “plug and play.”
The weakness, however, is that having a lot of players who are able to do similar things means you have fewer players who can offer a true change. In games like the MLS Cup final, what the Sounders were doing clearly wasn’t working. Just having the option to bring on a player with a different skillset would have been very useful. The offseason should be spent looking for that type of player.
Play at home
Amidst the celebrations of the Western Conference trophy, and repeated in the doldrums of the post-final loss, Stefan Frei spoke of a need for the Sounders to put themselves in a better position. Winning two straight finals on the road — in freezing temperatures, no less — was always a tall order and probably an unrealistic expectation.
The only way to ensure that it doesn’t happen again is to avoid the slow starts that plagued each of the previous two seasons (when, in both cases, they were below .500 at the midway mark). The Sounders have shown that those slow starts aren’t the disaster they’re sometimes made out to be, but they do have a cost.
It’s entirely reasonable to argue that there was nothing the Sounders could have reasonably done in March and April to close the 16-point gap between them and TFC, but the Supporters’ Shield isn’t going to be won with a record-setting haul every year. The Sounders at least need to be better than seventh in the overall table.