Sometimes it’s depressing being a sports fan. We live and die, to whatever degree we have committed ourselves to the tribe, by the actions on and off the field of a group of people over whom we have next to no sway. Success, no matter how monumental, provides little but a delay of an inevitable disappointment foisted on us through the most banal of mistakes perpetrated by those in whose hands we’ve placed our sporting souls.
It’s tough to wrap your mind around the idiosyncrasies of being a soccer club near the top of the food chain in its league, but a league well below the top of the global chain. It’s fun being a mackerel, until the tuna and sharks move in. MLS, built to create as much entropy as possible, is a league of minimized weaknesses. Without a significant amount of luck it is not possible to construct a perfect roster, nor to have a roster without holes. There are an infinite number of ways to try to address this; none of them are particularly exciting, and most of them are particularly infuriating. We are held in a limbo of someone else’s making, to be provided release only at their choosing and whims.
Who am I kidding? It’s always depressing.
Sporting success allows only the vague resetting of base expectations, providing little more than a larger opportunity for disappointment. To eat only sustenance is to forget the pleasures of fats. To eye only the fats is to ignore the need to provide sustenance of all kinds to all parts of the body. To gorge on the fat of success until any dip in the number of plates and cups passing continuously in front of us leads to a wailing and gnashing of teeth not seen since John put pen to scroll is to be blind to the depths of our gluttony.
The Sounders launched their MLS incarnation into a stagnant league struggling to draw the eyes of players, fans, media, and investors. The Seattle ownership group paid a $30 million expansion fee, just $10 million more than had been paid a decade before (10 years later, the current expansion fee reportedly sits north of $150 million and draws the eyes of some of the largest concentrations of wealth seen in human history). Talk over the years of democracy in sports, of “...it’s 100% results-oriented. Either you win or you don’t”, of continously raising the bar, of owing it to fans to spend money, of competing with the best teams in the hemisphere, has created a level of expectation on our part that struggles in constant tension with the inescapable realities and vagaries of the league. These aren’t the only statements; others exist that would provide realistic temperance, but it’s easy, even human nature, to ignore broader contexts and information to latch on to the things that best fit our hopes and dreams.
Things change, and sometimes things change faster than we expect. The growth of the league in the last few years has far outstripped even the most optimistic expectations. The Sounders have been remarkably consistent in the growth of their spending and organizational expansion, but the context has changed. This is not the league we entered. This is not the reality we faced when those statements were made. Have the goals changed? Those aren’t statements that can just be walked away from, no matter the changes.
It’s hard to give up any status, even if that status is probably meaningless. Outside of the biggest teams in the world, who can afford to make $60 million mistakes, teams at the MLS level around the world live and die more by their scouting quality and development capabilities than their spending level. Still, the ability to covet expensive things and do more than simply dream about them is alluring on a level deeper than just sports.
The pride of past results hangs heavy, suspended in front of everyone on gamedays as a reminder of the relief and release so tantalisingly close in a league of parity. The single shiny string of tinsel in each of our neighbors’ nests can easily combine into an overwhelming brightness when a shadow falls on our own.
The waiting to know is the worst part. Maybe worse is believing the team should be doing something different and being powerless to enforce your will. The wrath begot from inaction easily becomes all-consuming, even in the most rational of us. Whereas, once, we could point to a level of player target far beyond those other teams could hope for as a sign of our ambitions, we find ourselves among the chasing pack. In the interim just since the arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro, the target has moved substantially. In the world of soccer nearly two years without a major signing is an epoch. In a league growing explosively, it can be a forever.
The invisible hand that shoves us unwillingly up and down the terraces of the mountain, seemingly indifferent to our desire to only climb upwards, towards the paradise of angels and winners, is infuriating. We should not be heading toward this fresh hell of early season pain. This is not the path we laid out for ourselves. Are we now the indolent, our laurels wilted but still claimed a crown?
The telltale signs of too many miles are starting to show on our heroes. Chad Marshall, perhaps the greatest defender the league has ever seen, is increasingly subject of lingering knocks. Osvaldo Alonso, the heart and soul of the club since its reincarnation, has begun to show his age. The same, and more, can be said of the longtime centerpiece of the attack. Clint Dempsey’s increasing limitations are reducing our ability to overlook his flaws, and his flaws are beginning to place restrictions on others.
Secondary roster components like Gustav Svensson and Roman Torres are also aging. Victor Rodriguez has shown an inability to stay healthy. The Great Seattle Hope has battled injuries, and the least optimistic can point to his MLS production all coming in a relatively short window in his rookie season. The wing positions remain unsettled; right wing has quickly begun to feel like an ever-revolving door that won’t quite stop its turning. Ignoring even the topic of quality, the forward position sits a single injury away from being empty. The tension is not just with our expectations, but with our hopes. Success may be tantalisingly near, but failure also seems fearfully close. The line on which we balance between the two feels weaker than it ever has.
A mixture of MLS roster restrictions — in particular the vagaries of salaries and available funding — and the transitional level at which the league exists in the world soccer player market combine to mean that roster churn is high. Player movement patterns mean lower leagues are forced to wait to finalize signings, and players move more often. These may be things outside of our control, but they are things we are beholden to. It is difficult to sign multiple major players at once, even more so when your staff is relatively limited. To have so many cornerstone pieces coming due at the same time for a regime that has yet to show itself able to make multiple large moves at the same time is concerning. How do you progress to paradise if you take long enough in your penances that your previous works disintegrate?
There are promising pieces deep in the academy. There are a few players nearing MLS contributing levels at S2. There are quality supporting pieces on the roster now. Even for the largest spenders in the league, there is an acute need to maximize resource usage, and these are great ways to do so. These are vital pieces of a long-sustaining successful future. They’re not the only pieces, and they can’t be the only focus. It’s hard to focus on the improving floor when it feels like the ceiling is coming down on you.
The pains of a major miss or two can easily bull whip their way through an organisation. The margin of error is slim when you live further towards the margin of a sport; caution is a necessity. Yet, MLS remains a league of the few dominant players. It is absolutely necessary to maximise the production capability of these positions if a team is to be dominant.
Neither, though, is inaction — intentional or not — only a current pain. It, too, is a compounding one that is difficult to escape (though, less so in an artificially restricted market drawing from such a large pool of resources and myriad ways to put them together). No amount of penitence on our part will cease the labours of our frustrations if too much is left for too late. A perfect transaction made too late is not a perfect transaction.
This feels like a pivotal season in the team’s MLS history. The changes in the MLS landscape have begun to settle on the team, and seeing other teams move forward so quickly — even if from far behind — while our most vital pieces are squeezed for their last drops with only secondary supplementation is not comfortable to watch. The roster feels stretched thin in many areas, and not just because of injuries. Whereas these risks may have been a limitation unwillingly accepted by salary cap and reputation restrictions in the past, many teams no longer have the clear divide between starting XI and backups. For a team that has been hyped via its roster for so long, the shift to results-based happiness is not an easy one. It is difficult to reconcile the warring desires of results and entertainment. Few teams in the world at any level are capable of providing both, but that doesn’t change our desire for it.
When paradise is all we’ve known, a normal sports existence is confusing and disorienting. We have walked through the hell other teams exist in; the fear of existing in that hell regularly is a grim consideration comparatively. And so here we are. Our guides have once again led us to the edge and asked that we trust they will save us from falling. Our memory in sports is often painfully, dishearteningly short. We teeter at the edge of this purgatory yet again, staring at a depressing abyss only recently departed. No matter past successes indicative of a logical process, it’s tiring to seemingly flail yet again in such a familiar way, hoping for a future savior. The waiting to know is the worst part.