This week is “What If? Week” at SB Nation, in which sites are exploring alternate realities. At Sounder at Heart, we’ll be looking at a variety of scenarios, but we’re going to start with a simple deflection. What would have happened if Juninho’s long-distance shot in the second leg of the 2014 Western Conference finals had deflected off the post and stayed out of the goal?
The Seattle Sounders came into the second leg of the 2014 Western Conference finals against the LA Galaxy knowing that history was well within their reach. They had already become the second team in MLS history to win the Supporters’ Shield-U.S. Open Cup double, and they came into the match knowing that they were a two-goal victory away from becoming the first team since 2003 to even play for the MLS treble, something no team had previously completed.
Boosting the Sounders’ hopes against their longtime nemesis was the knowledge they had just bested the Galaxy in what was effectively a two-legged playoff for the Supporters’ Shield in the final two games of the season. The Sounders had erased a 2-0 deficit to pull out a draw in the regular season’s penultimate match in Carson. Needing only a draw in the regular-season finale, Marco Pappa scored a pair of late goals to give the Sounders a 2-0 win and hand them the Supporters’ Shield in front of their home fans.
The Sounders didn’t exactly impress in the Western Conference semifinals, but they were never really troubled in their two-legged series against FC Dallas after salvaging a 1-1 draw in the first leg. They ultimately advanced on away goals after drawing the second leg, 0-0.
The Galaxy were clearly the better team in the first leg of the conference finals, outshooting the Sounders 20-10 and winning the match, 1-0. Still, the Sounders headed home knowing that a two-goal win would mean hosting MLS Cup.
The match started well. Brad Evans scored on a loose ball in front of goal in the 26th minute and about 10 minutes later Clint Dempsey sent the crowd of nearly 47,000 into delirium when he scored to make it 2-0.
That’s where the score stayed until the 53rd minute, when a corner kick found its way to Juninho at the top of the box. The Brazilian took a shot with his first touch and it hit the post...
The new reality
Although Juninho’s shot was outside of Stefan Frei’s reach, the Sounders got a huge break when it bounced right back into the goalkeeper’s arms. Buoyed by their good fortune, the Sounders were able to manage the final 40ish minutes and punched their ticket to MLS Cup where the Jermaine Jones-led New England Revolution were waiting.
With two full weeks of lead-in time, the Sounders immediately announced that they would be opening the entire stadium for ticket sales. Inventory quickly sold out, guaranteeing that the Sounders would beat the previous MLS Cup record of 61,316 who showed up for the 2002 final at Gillette Stadium. The only remaining question was how high the Sounders could push their capacity.
In the final days before the match, the Sounders were able to open up a few extra seats that would allow them to exceed their own attendance record of 67,385 that had watched them beat the Portland Timbers in Dempsey’s home debut the previous season. In the end, they would welcome 68,003 fans into the building.
Those fans were treated to quite the Sounders performance. Dempsey converted an early penalty after being taken down in the box and Obafemi Martins followed up a little later with a header off a DeAndre Yedlin cross to send the Sounders into halftime leading 2-0.
The highlight of the match came about midway through the second half, when Marco Pappa picked up a ball near midfield and pushed it ahead to Dempsey. He back-heeled it to Martins who then passed back to Pappa. The Guatemalan put Martins in on goal with a gorgeous throughball before laying it off to a wide open Dempsey, who basically walked it into goal. The crowd erupted into cheers that registered on seismic-activity detectors that had been placed around the stadium.
The 3-0 win was the perfect capstone to the first treble in MLS history and left no doubt that the Sounders were the greatest team in the league’s 19 seasons.
Not only did the Sounders have the most famous player in the league (Dempsey) and the most exciting duo (Oba-Deuce), but they now also had the undeniable hardware. Their popularity was pushing Kemp-Payton levels around Seattle — you could see their shirts all over town — and they were even getting treatment few involved in MLS had ever seen on a national level. One week they were on Letterman, another they were on Jimmy Kimmel, and it seemed like almost every week they were mentioned by Donna on Parks and Rec.
Buoyed by his success, Sigi Schmid took on a larger role within the Sounders organization. After Adrian Hanauer stepped away from the general manager job in order to focus on the business side of the operations — the rumor was that he was focusing on finding a pathway toward building soccer-specific stadium — Schmid took on the role of President of Soccer and he appointed Chris Henderson as the general manager. The move was believed to be part of a larger long-term succession plan, with Schmid stating that he was only interested in remaining as coach for another year or two. Although no coach-in-waiting was announced at the time, it was largely assumed that Brian Schmetzer had received assurances he was next in line after he turned down the San Jose Earthquakes job.
It had been heavily rumored that prior to the Sounders’ playoff run that Hanauer had engaged in some level of discussions with Real Salt Lake’s Garth Lagerwey, but he accepted the position of president with Toronto FC shortly after MLS Cup, putting those rumors to rest.
With Yedlin completing his move to Tottenham Hotspur, the Sounders moved quickly to fill the void by signing English veteran right back Tyrone Mears. Lacking a first-round pick in the SuperDraft after trading their pick to Toronto FC in exchange for Stefan Frei before the start of the 2014 season, the Sounders had limited options to bolster their roster through the draft. When University of Washington midfielder Cristian Roldan slid down the draft board, the Sounders were reportedly interested in moving up to take him. But unable to find a trade partner, Roldan was eventually selected by Sporting Kansas City with the No. 20 pick.
After losing Jalil Anibaba in the expansion draft and Djimi Traore to retirement, the Sounders reinforced their defense by swinging trades for longtime Schmid target Sam Cronin and UW product George John. Cronin was expected to compete for minutes with Gonzalo Pineda in the midfield, while the Sounders believed that John could recover from the knee injury that cost him all of 2014 and could eventually return to the form that made him one of the league’s top centerbacks. In the meantime, they were convinced that a centerback pairing of Chad Marshall and Brad Evans could be one the league’s elite.
The final big move of the offseason was trading Marco Pappa and their next two first round draft picks to the New England Revolution for Federal Way’s Kelyn Rowe, another longtime apple in Schmid’s eye.
The Sounders picked up right where they left off, going 9-4-2 in their first 15 matches and were leading the Supporters’ Shield race heading into a rematch of the previous year’s U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals against the Portland Timbers.
By the time the dust settled, however, the Sounders were in deep trouble. Not only did they lose the match, but they also lost Martins to an injury and were set to lose Dempsey for an extended period after he tore up the referee’s notebook in a fit of anger after seeing his team given a second red card that left them with just eight players. The Sounders finished the match with just seven on the pitch.
MLS came down hard on Dempsey, suspending him for three games. He would ultimately miss 10 of the next 11 games due to a combination of suspension, international duty and injury.
Combined with Martins’ injury, that sent the Sounders into a bit of a tailspin. A three-game losing streak essentially pushed them out of Supporters’ Shield contention, but a late winner from Tyrone Mears allowed them to snap the skid. Convinced they needed immediate reinforcements, the Sounders swung a trade for Alvaro Saborio, who promptly scored two goals in three games as the Sounders went 1-0-2. Cronin’s late equalizer against the Montreal Impact on July 25 put the Sounders on 36 points, just two behind Shield-leading FC Dallas. Over the next month, though, the Sounders dropped 9 of 12 points to lose touch with the Shield race.
The return of Martins and Dempsey — as well as the addition of Andreas Ivanschitz near the end of the transfer window — allowed the Sounders to finish the season strong. Their 55 points were good for second place in the West.
The Sounders easily handled Sporting KC — who upset the Vancouver Whitecaps in the play-in round — in the conference semifinals to set up a Western Conference final against the Portland Timbers. Avenging their playoff loss to the Timbers two years earlier, the Sounders advanced on a 3-2 aggregate-goal score with Rowe scoring a late winner at CenturyLink Field in the second leg.
That set up a second straight MLS Cup at CenturyLink Field, this time against the Columbus Crew. Boosted by a crowd of another record crowd of 68,301, the Sounders repeated as champions.
Despite their success — and maybe spurred on by it — the Sounders were unable to keep the momentum going. Martins accepted a lucrative offer to play in China and George John was forced to retire after being unable to stay healthy during the 2015 campaign. Pineda also retired, Lamar Neagle was traded and several other veterans were allowed to leave. The Sounders were, however, able to convince Jordan Morris to skip a chance to play in Germany to join his hometown team.
The Sounders got off to a slow start, losing three straight, and although they managed to get back into the playoff race, they toiled just outside of it into the summer when they were finally able to land Nicolas Lodeiro on a transfer from Boca Juniors.
Lodeiro’s addition, however, was somewhat offset by Dempsey’s loss due to a heart issue. The Sounders were still able to make the playoffs, where they faced Sporting KC in the play-in round. KC ultimately won 1-0 on a Matt Besler header.
At the end of the season, Schmid stepped down as head coach to serve as the club’s full-time president. His first order of business was to name Schmetzer his successor.
I obviously took a fair amount of creative license with this, but I think the events are all at least within the realm of possibility. While I think it’s entirely possible Juninho’s shot essentially cost the Sounders a chance at MLS immortality by denying them a treble and potentially even a repeat championship, in this alternate reality I don’t think we can assume they’d have won in 2016 or 2019. The failure in 2014, I believe, led them to Lagerwey, and Lagerwey deserves a good deal of credit for putting the organization on the path to those two championships.