The 2014 Sounders were a great side that won two trophies and very easily could have won a domestic treble. The 2015 team is remembered as a disappointment. How did a team returning almost all of its key contributors end up leaving such bad memories behind? You can make a compelling argument that one game changed the course of the season and the Sounders franchise as a whole.
The Sounders got off to a torrid start in 2015. The core of the team from 2014 returned with losing only DeAndre Yedlin and Kenny Cooper from their core. But those losses were partially offset by the signing of Tyrone Mears and by drafting Cristian Roldan. Throw in Oneil Fisher (who was surprisingly good for the club) and they were arguably just as strong as the year before.
The team went 9-4-2 over their first 15 games and were on pace for a 66-point season. They outscored their opponents 23-9 over that stretch. That pace would have been a +32 goal differential over a 34-game season. You can make the case they were lucky (especially defensively) as xG showed them as 21-15. Even so, that xG still projected them to have nearly an identical xGD as they did in 2014.
There was no reason to think that a 60+-point season wasn’t probable at that point.
The Red Card Wedding and Aftermath
Enough has been written about this game that we don’t need to recap it. But the aftermath was decimating to the Sounders. Perhaps the most painful loss was Obafemi Martins suffering an injury that would cause him to miss the next nine games. Clint Dempsey had his infamous suspension that only cost him three games, but he immediately left for the Gold Cup after that ended, meaning he was gone for seven straight games. After appearing in one game, he injured his hamstring and was out the another four. In the nine games from the Open Cup loss until Martins’ returned, the Sounders went 1-8-0.
Once Martins returned they rebounded to finish 5-1-4, and though it wasn’t as great as their first 15 games, they still outscored their opponents 20-9 with an xG of 16-11. The underlying numbers said they were nearly as good, just a bit unlucky.
The loss of both Dempsey and Martins for a huge stretch of the season also meant the Sounders were exceptionally busy during the transfer window, bringing in Roman Torres, Nelson Valdez, Andreas Ivanschitz, and Erik Friberg. It wasn’t enough, though, as the Sounders exited the playoffs in a disappointing fashion.
When combined with the way 2016 started, this was easily one the darkest periods in history of the team. The effects of that game can still be felt today to a certain extent. The Sounders haven’t put out a lineup with many of their star players in an Open Cup match since that game.
How does that season play out if that game could be erased?
Let’s say Brad Evans never gets that first red card. Or the Sounders put out a full second-choice lineup and lose. What changes? The Sounders were easily as good as they were in 2014, but unlike that year when the Galaxy were arguably just as strong or stronger, the 2015 MLS season didn’t feature any great teams. The Red Bulls were the best team in the league, but the Sounders had already proven capable of beating them, and much of their Shield run was bolstered by the weakness of the Eastern Conference.
The Sounders finished in the middle of the Western Conference and just two points out of second, even with that putrid nine-game run. Could they have won the Shield again? I think it’s probable, maybe even likely.
Keep in mind that the Sounders had money to spend in the window. Friberg, Torres and Ivanschitz still seem like signings that would make sense for a team with Martins and Dempsey firing on all cylinders, but Valdez probably doesn’t. Maybe they find a DP winger instead. Maybe there’s a DP left back they could have signed. They had the money and would have had the opportunity to strengthen an already strong squad rather than making moves to keep their heads above water.
They probably don’t win MLS Cup (even the favorite going in doesn’t have great odds to do so), but they would have been the favorite to do so. If they had won the Cup, the 2014-2015 Sounders would be talked about as one of the best squads in MLS history.
Let’s say they do win another double that year. What does 2016 look like? In hindsight it seems Garth Lagerwey and Sigi Schmid never really saw eye-to-eye and a poor start to 2016 made it easy to sacrifice Sigi. If that same start happens, what does the team do? It would be hard to fire your coach after back-to-back doubles. And in any power struggle between Garth and Sigi, it’s entirely possible Sigi comes out on top. What would the team have done to address the poor performances in 2016? Would Nico Lodeiro still have been the DP? How does the team finish in 2016? What is the trajectory going forward. None of those questions can be answered definitively, but this whole project is about guessing, so I’d say 2016 starts the same way. Garth has no ability to fire Sigi, and they fail to make the playoffs. I don’t think they still get Nico because Sigi wouldn’t have been patient enough to wait for a DP.
Going into 2017 there would have been a good chance that Sigi and Garth couldn’t make things work, and Sigi comes out on top. Sigi goes to the front office to run the team, and Brian Schmetzer becomes the coach. Would Sigi have been able to keep the team as competitive as he rebuilt it as Garth was able to? I have my doubts.
It’s entirely possible the Sounders would be in a far worse place today if that game had never happened. Looking back as a what if, your first instinct is always to think how much better things could have been without that game. In hindsight, the argument is pretty compelling that the Sounders have had more success than they would have, and are set up better for the future than if we could erase that match.