In some very specific ways, this has been arguably the most frustrating season in Seattle Sounders history. It certainly isn’t the most gut-wrenching season to date — that belongs to 2013 and I’m not sure anything will ever come close — but this year started out with Brian Schmetzer openly talking about it being the best in franchise history, and it’s been stuck in neutral basically ever since.
Even if the Sounders manage to pull this season out of the ditch, grab a decent playoff seeding and make a deep run in the playoffs, I think there’s going to be a lingering sense of “what could have been” that will need to drive any offseason conversations.
But this is probably a conversation for a later time. For at least today, I think it’s worth focusing on the bigger picture.
Thanks to results in Portland and San Jose on Wednesday, the Sounders were able to clinch a playoff spot for the 11th straight season. That’s a new MLS record, one that had been previously shared with the 1996-2005 LA Galaxy — a team that once qualified for the playoffs despite finishing ninth in a 10-team league and never played in an era where less than two-thirds of the teams qualified for the postseason. Only the New York Red Bulls’ current streak of 10 consecutive postseasons has any real hope of bettering the Sounders’ accomplishment in the near future, and Sporting KC’s eight-season run — which is currently tied for the fourth longest — officially ended with Wednesday’s loss to Minnesota United. After them, the next longest active streak in MLS belongs to New York City FC, which has done it for four straight years.
While it’s certainly fair to point out that the Sounders have never been able to authoritatively claim themselves as the “best” team in any given year and that simply qualifying for the playoffs in any given year is not a particularly big accomplishment, their consistency is quite literally unmatched.
Even though the Sounders have needed to wait until the final game of the season to qualify on a couple of occasions, they’ve still never finished lower than fourth in the Western Conference or worse than seventh in the Supporters’ Shield standings (they currently occupy both of those spots). That means the Sounders would have qualified for the playoffs even if MLS had never expanded the field from the first year and would have qualified under every format the league has ever used. This year is also just the second time — the Supporters’ Shield campaign of 2014 being the other — that the Sounders never dropped below the playoff line.
They’ve also now reached at least 50 points in 8 of 9 seasons since MLS moved to a 34-game schedule. The Red Bulls have a chance to equal that accomplishment — they’re currently on 47 points with two games remaining — and the Galaxy are the only other team who can claim that number in 7 of 9 seasons, and they have a 32-point clunker sprinkled in. Sporting KC, the league’s other paragon of consistency, has only accomplished this feat in 5 of 9 seasons. As great as Atlanta United has been during their first four seasons — they’ve reached at least 54 points every year — they’re barely halfway to the Sounders’ bar of consistency.
The Sounders’ on-field consistency has largely been matched off the field. From the very beginning, Adrian Hanauer has been the most hands-on owner and the one making the biggest decisions. From 2009-2014, he doubled as the team’s general manager as well. Sporting Director Chris Henderson, head coach Brian Schmetzer and goalkeeper’s coach Tom Dutra have also been here from the very beginning. But even less-tenured coaches and front-office personnel have lengthy histories with the team. Assistant coach Gonzalo Pineda played for the Sounders in 2014-15 before joining the coaching staff in 2017. Similarly, assistant coach Djimi Traore played for the Sounders in 2013-14 before first joining the S2 staff in 2016 and the first team staff in 2018. In fact, no coach in Sounders history has spent fewer than two seasons with the team.
From a big picture perspective, the Sounders’ roster has also maintained an impressive degree of continuity as Garth Lagerwey has never gone into full-blown rebuild mode since taking over as GM ahead of the 2015 season. But the team has still had to endure some significant losses. Since last summer, they’ve seen arguably the best American offensive player and MLS’s best-ever defender retire. They also allowed the league’s best defensive midfielder leave on free agency. While Clint Dempsey had effectively already been replaced when he hung up the boots, the team has not quite had the same luck in trying to replicate the production of Chad Marshall or Osvaldo Alonso. Making it even tougher to replace them has been a seeming unending string of injuries and international absences, many of which seem to be happening all at the same. Yet here they are. Again.
The Sounders didn’t make it easy, but they’ve once again at least put themselves in a position to contend for a second MLS Cup.
It’s a fair question, I suppose, whether or not the Sounders can maintain this level — or hopefully rise above it — but we should also not be shy about celebrating what they’ve already done. The Sounders have set a new mark for MLS consistency and one that will only become harder to match.