When the Seattle Sounders joined MLS in 2009, no expansion team had even qualified for the playoffs since the Chicago Fire did it in 1998 (and they could hardly be called an expansion team when the league was only two years old at that point). With Wednesday’s win, the Sounders have now managed to do that in all 10 of their seasons.
That’s an amazing accomplishment, and one I wonder if we’ve sort of taken for granted. The only other MLS team to qualify for 10 straight postseasons was the LA Galaxy, who pulled that off every year from 1996-2005. In six of those seasons, the Galaxy only had to avoid finishing in the bottom two of the league and in the other four they only had to finish outside the bottom four. At its most competitive, the Galaxy were playing in a league that allowed 67 percent of its teams into the playoffs.
The Sounders, by contrast, have never played in a league where more than 60 percent of the teams qualified for the postseason (from 2015-16) and for most of the seasons it was more like 55 percent. Perhaps more impressively, the Sounders have never failed to finish in the top half of the overall table, something they are almost assured of doing again this year.
To add further context, of the 16 expansion teams to join MLS, the only one with more playoff appearances is the Fire (13) and they had an 11-year head start. The expansion team with the next most playoff appearances is Real Salt Lake (currently seven), and they had a four-year head start. None of the other 13 expansion teams have more than five.
There’s been a lot of talk about how great of a start Atlanta United are off to and there’s been chatter that LAFC have enjoyed an arguably better expansion season than even them. I won’t dispute that both of those teams have set a new bar as far as expansion teams go.
But I’ll also suggest that what the Sounders have done is more impressive, at least in a sense. While Atlanta has already built a team that can stand alongside some of the all-time great single-seasons in league history — regardless of how the season ends — it’s still a relatively small window. They’ve not yet had to deal with any sort of rebuilding process or had to cycle through coaches or star players.
Similarly, while Toronto FC put together a historically awesome team of their own last year, they also showed how hard it is to maintain that level when they missed the playoffs entirely this year.
The Sounders have never reached that level of greatness, but they’ve held this level of consistency despite almost completely turning over their roster and coaching staff (Osvaldo Alonso is the only player to appear in all 10 seasons and Brian Schmetzer and Tommy Dutra are the last holdouts from that initial staff). They’ve even mostly overhauled their front office.
While Atlanta and LAFC may end up surpassing the Sounders in virtually every capacity, the reality is that the Sounders deserve credit for creating a sustainable and repeatable template when nothing like it existed. They built a club with mostly local ownership, a heavy dose of local talent, fueled it mostly through ticket sales and made it last for at least a decade. That’s worth celebrating.
Their greatest run yet
It’s been well documented that the last two seasons required the Sounders to go on historic runs in order to keep their playoff streak alive. But this year was something that seemed impossible even by those standards.
When I wrote about their potential path to the playoffs, it seemed only vaguely plausible that they could manage to get to 49 points by claiming 33 points over their final 16 games. They’re already at 53 with two games left to play against highly beatable opponents. When I wrote that, they needed to make up an 11-point gap just to get to sixth. They’re now in fourth and finishing atop the conference is not yet mathematically impossible.
They did it by assembling what is already the greatest 17-game run of the post-shootout era. Over that time, the Sounders have gone 13-2-2 to claim 41 points. If they are able to win their final two games, their 17-game form would improve to 14-2-1 (43 points), which would easily rank as the best second-half performance in league history (the San Jose Earthquakes went on a 40-point tear to close out the 2005 campaign).
Best 17-game runs in MLS history
|*corrected for shootout results|
Whether or not they can sustain this run into the postseason is obviously a very important question, but what they’ve already accomplished is nothing short of historic.
Who’s fueling it?
OK, this is probably an unfair question because I don’t think it’s any one player. The addition of Raúl Ruidíaz is undeniably a massive factor. But as I’ve been stating a lot over the past few weeks, he’s not the only difference.
Facing an admittedly awful Orlando City SC, the player who took center stage was Victor Rodriguez. The Catalan is on a rather impressive run of his own, adding a goal and an assist in this game to give him four goals and two assists in his past three games.
I’ve been arguing that his return to health is potentially as important as anything to the Sounders’ hopes of advancing to a third straight MLS Cup, and a lot of why I feel that way was on display Wednesday.
Simply put, Rodriguez has the ability to break a game open in ways I don’t think even Lodeiro or Ruidiaz can as he’s equally dangerous with the ball at his feet or making runs off the ball. When those two are on the field, he’s willing to make the type of runs that occupy defenses and force them to lose track of his higher-profile teammates. But if defenses key on them, he’s perfectly happy to make danger on his own.
His goal against Orlando City was a great example of putting all of that together as he made a wonderful off-ball run and managed to chip the keeper with a volley he took over the shoulder.
Quite the goal to score within 3 minutes. VRod makes it 1-0 pic.twitter.com/CrRwI8jL0G— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) October 17, 2018
It’s also worth noting that the Sounders are scoring 1.75 goals per 90 minutes when Rodriguez plays, independent of who else is on the field. That’s almost exactly slightly better than how well the Sounders score when Lodeiro plays (1.72). Even more encouraging: the Sounders now have 12 goals in Rodriguez’s past five starts, three of which were without Ruidíaz starting and one of which was without Lodeiro. I won’t try to convince anyone that Rodriguez is MORE important than either of those two, but he clearly makes the Sounders a better team.
Stefan Frei’s GKOY campaign
He didn’t post a shutout, again, but Stefan Frei quietly registered his 26th game of the year in which he’s allowed one or fewer goals. Frei’s seven shutouts are tied for only ninth in the league, but he easily leads goalkeepers in matches where he’s allowed one or fewer goals. Co-shutout leaders Luis Robles and Tim Melia, who each have 12, have allowed one or fewer goals 23 and 19 times, respectively.
I think it can reasonably be argued that shutouts are a bit of a statistical fluke. Allowing exactly zero goals in a game relies on a multitude of factors that the goalkeeper can only control part of (like the referee failing to flag a player offside). And while a lot of the same thing can be said about allowing one goal, I think it might be a better overall stand-in when talking about consistently keeping your team in the game.
I strongly suspect that Frei is the front-runner for Goalkeeper of the Year, but I also know voters like easy-to-understand stats. Shutouts are probably the easiest one to understand and often are used as a proxy (like wins in the Cy Young race) for selecting the top goalkeeper.
Just figured this might be a helpful stat for any of those voters who are on the fence. You’re welcome.
The game in one gif
As happy as I was for Handwalla Bwana getting his second career goal, the defending on this is so laughably bad that it almost single-handedly diminishes the three points.
The youngster has MOVES! Bwana makes it 2-0 pic.twitter.com/G0bqzz27NT— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) October 17, 2018
Quote of the day
“Well I feel a little spoiled just being part of this organization and you know, playing in the playoffs each year. You know it’s a difficult thing to do, this is a quality organization. We’re very proud of what we’re doing and hopefully we can continue this and from what I hear, beat a record next year and make the playoffs. But it’s about this year and hopefully we can make an impact in the playoffs.” - Cristian Roldan
One stat to tell the tale
16-2-3 — That’s the Sounders record when they score at least one goal. They’re 13-0-1 when they score first.