Calling this year “unprecedented” is so cliché that even pointing out that it’s a cliché is, itself, a cliché. Yet, it still feels impossible to write about 2020 without pointing this out, yet again, precisely because of how strange this year has been.
Following the Seattle Sounders has not probably not been uniquely strange, but it does provide its own sort of perspective.
The oddity of the year stretches all the way back to January, when we weren’t even sure if the season would begin on time. The league and players, at that point, were still locked in negotiations over a new CBA and it seemed well within the realm of possibility that the season could be postponed, if not entirely canceled. Thankfully, that was avoided when the two sides came together to work out the framework for an agreement in early February, which cleared the way for the season to begin on time. At the time, it felt like a borderline miracle that unlike the two previous CBA negotiations, this one had not come at the last minute.
As we now know, it was a false sense of security. After renegotiating that CBA before it had even been ratified, MLS is now preparing to bargain over it again. The future of MLS has not felt so uncertain since the dark days of post-9/11 when the league went through its only contraction.
Those feelings of uncertainty can probably be traced all the way to the start of the season. It began with a frustrating 2-2 tie on the road against Olimpia in which the Sounders blew a 2-0 lead, which was followed by another 2-2 tie against the same team in which the Sounders again blew a late lead and then lost in penalties. Only a few days after that, news started to come out that Covid-19 had shown up in the Seattle area. Open discussion about postponing games soon followed, and there was enough concern ahead of the March 7 match against the Columbus Crew that the Sounders offered ticket swaps for anyone uncomfortable with attending, something thousands appeared to have taken them up on.
That would end up being the last game the Sounders played for months and it really did seem like the season could be completely canceled.
I will admit that I was among those who was exceptionally skeptical of the MLS is Back plans when they first came out. I thought the league was asking too much of the players and not offering nearly enough assurances. Brian Schmetzer seemed to share some of those concerns when he addressed fans prior to the Sounders’ heading off for the tournament. In the end, I think the league deserves some credit for scaling back the ask and seemingly upgrading the safety precautions. Once teams got out of quarantine, the event was as safe as anyone could have hoped.
That players also refused to let their desire to get back on the field overshadow their desire to fight for social justice was another positive outcome. I was especially proud that they maintained that voice throughout the season, even forcing nearly an entire day’s worth of games to be postponed.
Where we saw the Sounders finally shine was when they returned to play following the tournament. With about a month between games, the Sounders came out flying against the tournament champion Portland Timbers. They won that game 3-0 with a trio of second-half goals and that sent them on a streak of highly enjoyable play. Over their first 10 games following MLS is Back, the Sounders went 7-2-1 and outscored their opponents 30-9. The only comparable 10-game stretch in Sounders history was when they went 9-1-0 and outscored opponents 21-5 in 2018. Considering that 2018 run included an MLS-record nine-game winning streak, I seriously doubt you’ll find a more impressive 10-game run in league history.
It was probably going to be impossible to continue that sort of form throughout the season, but they did go 5-2-3 and outscored opponents 17-12 over their next 10 games, which included three straight wins in the playoffs. Taken together, those 20 games were about as enjoyable as the Sounders have ever been, especially when you consider it included three matches in which they changed the result with stoppage-time goals. The only shame is that despite 10 of those matches being played at home, fans didn’t get to see any of them in person. It especially pains me to imagine what it would have been like with a full stadium when Gustav Svensson’s winner against Minnesota United completed a comeback from 2-0 down and punched the Sounders’ ticket to MLS Cup. Sadly, we may never again get a moment like that which combines the emotions of an epic comeback and such a high-stakes.
Of course, the game we’ll remember most is MLS Cup. In a sense, that’s fair. You get embarrassed like that in a championship game and it’s going to leave a lasting impression. It’s frustrating that the Sounders weren’t able to put forward their best lineup for whatever reason, but the their fate may have been sealed much earlier in the season. If the Sounders had managed to just beat the Crew at home back in March, they’d have hosted MLS Cup. Teams who play MLS Cup at home have won the championship on 8 of 10 occasions.
Like everyone, I imagine, my feelings about 2020 are mixed. To complain too loudly about losing MLS Cup feels insensitive, to say the least. We should feel lucky, spoiled and probably a little guilty that we had soccer to watch at all.
Personally, I can’t help but feel very lucky to have gotten through this year without much personal loss. My family and job are all intact. I got to watch mostly enjoyable soccer. But I also understand that many others weren’t as lucky and that the entertainment I enjoyed came at significant risk. I’m still not entirely convinced that it was a good idea for MLS to continue, but I will acknowledge that they had little choice and seemed to handle it about as well as could be reasonably hoped. The Sounders, in particular, deserve praise for apparently avoiding any outbreaks from within the team.
Not only did they remain mostly healthy, but I think they also made some genuine efforts to tip the scales of social justice. The Sounders did their part to raise awareness of police brutality in general and Manuel Ellis’ murder in particular. They also worked to lift up black-owned businesses in a variety of ways, while also helping raising and distributing more than $1 million to their neighbors through the Sounders Relief Fund.
Many of the dangers we now face are not appreciably diminished, even if we can finally imagine a world where they’ve been addressed. I have no doubt that 2021 will throw new challenges in front of us. The sacrifices we all made are ongoing, the work we put in is only just beginning. The events of this year will surely go down in history, but we must not let the promises we made to “be better” be forgotten. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from 2020, it’s that the only way things get better is if we’re held accountable. Please, hold me to that.