TUKWILA, Wash. — Against all odds, the Seattle Sounders find themselves in a rather enviable position heading into the final regular season match of the year. With a playoff spot already clinched, a single point on Sunday against the San Jose Earthquakes — the league’s worst team — will secure no worse than home-field advantage for the Knockout Round of the MLS Cup playoffs. A win could catapult the Sounders as high as the No. 2 seed, which would bring with a bye into the Western Conference semifinals.
Such luxury was afforded to the Sounders courtesy of their end-of-season flourish in which they’ve already won 13 of 15 matches; they would secure the best half-season in league history with one more win.
As great as this all is, Stefan Frei can’t help but feel as though this sort of history-making run feels a little empty.
“It means we have to eliminate terrible starts,” Frei said following a rainy training session on Thursday. “With those kinds of numbers, we should be looking at the Supporters’ Shield. That would be a massive achievement.
“It’s a wasted ...,” at which point Frei caught himself.
“Maybe I’m looking at it wrong,” he continued. “But it would have been an opportunity to add to the trophy case. Especially coming from Europe, the Supporters’ Shield — who’s got the most points at the end of the year — that’s a big one.”
Frei, it should be said, is having probably his best season yet. Most observers peg him as one of the top contenders for Goalkeeper of the Year — if not the outright favorite — and he’s easily been the Sounders’ most consistent player, keeping them in games even during that dreary start that saw them go 3-9-3.
But the struggles have worn on Frei, something he openly admitted.
“We have to congratulate ourselves and say well done, but can we use that to reward ourselves even more and put ourselves in more enjoyable seasons?” he said. “They’re difficult mentally, I’m not going to lie.”
Frei compared the last three seasons — in which the Sounders spent parts of the year at or near the bottom of the standings before sprinting toward the finish line — to 2014, when they won the Supporters’ Shield and were consistent throughout.
“Looking at ’14, it was maybe a bit more difficult for me, because i was coming back from injury, but I was allowed to focus on my own things because as a team we were doing well,” he said. “That makes for a very enjoyable season. You can tinker with things, you can explore things. When you’re down in the gutter there’s no room for error; you’re always on edge. I think that’s one thing I want us to learn and to really take to heart.
“We’ve shown that we’re good squads, that our makeup of the squad that the coaches and GM puts together is there. But we have to get it going from the beginning.”
Considering this has been a problem for three years running, it prompts the rather obviously question, “How?”
Frei was not able to give a satisfying answer to that. He suggested that part of the reason the team has struggled out of the gate is the shortened offseason, something that’s unavoidable when the MLS Cup final isn’t played until December and training camp starts in late January. He pointed out that the same injury problems that contributed to the Sounders’ slow start eventually sunk Toronto FC’s season, resulting in the defending MLS double-winners missing the playoffs this year.
“Obviously you want to go far again and then it’s a super fine line with the preseason,” he said. “How do you get ready? How do you not put guys in a position where they aren’t ready and they might get injured, but also not be underprepared and get injured that way? I don’t have the answers. It’s difficult.
“But I guess it’s a good problem to have if you want to look at it like that.”