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Returning players help feed Sounders’ virtuous cycle of success

Román Torres is just the latest in a long line of players who have come back to the Sounders.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

No MLS team has enjoyed the Seattle Sounders’ level of sustained success. That they’ve won two MLS Cups, seven major trophies and are poised to make the playoffs for a record 12th straight year are all well documented at this point.

To be entirely honest, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to how they’ve done it until relatively recently when Charles Boehm of recently asked me what national pundits miss about the Sounders’ MLS success. Here’s part of what I said:

“I think the culture of winning is pretty strong. ... You can safely say that every player knows that they aren’t just the defending MLS Cup champs, for instance, but that they’ve also never missed the playoffs. Even when the team is toiling away, they know the expectation is that they will pull it together and make a late push.”

We’ve this broad pattern play out multiple times over the years. As early as 2010, a rash of injuries left the Sounders toiling away near the bottom of the standings. Blaise Nkufo joined around midseason and the Sounders surged into the playoffs. They repeated that pattern in 2013 when they were winless in their first five games; in 2015 when they lost of 8 of 9 in midseason; in 2016 when they were in last place as late as August; and in 2017 when they started 2-5-4. The degree of the turnaround differed each time, but the common thread was that the season ended in the postseason.

Dramatic turnarounds, by themselves, are not unique to the Sounders. That they’ve managed to do this with such regularity, however, suggests something specific to them that allows them to recover from sustained periods of poor play without allowing the season to fully unravel.

The only element I see as being unique to the Sounders is the degree to which they’ve embraced continuity. This started in the USL — a league that has been unstable from the very start. Rather than starting from scratch, the organization embraced its ties to the NASL. Over the team’s final seven seasons, Brian Schmetzer was the team’s only head coach and led them to the playoffs each year. The initial MLS season didn’t just continue the Sounders’ legacy in name, but in institutional knowledge. Adrian Hanauer remained on as both a minority owner and the team’s general manager. Schmetzer was Sigi Schmid’s top assistant, Tommy Dutra was the goalkeeping coach and five players who had spent at least one season with the USL team made that initial roster as well.

Starting with Lamar Neagle’s return to the team in 2011, the Sounders have brought back at least one player who had either played for the USL- or MLS-era team every season (including Neagle four times). There’s no specific characteristic for the players who return. They’ve ranged from big-name internationals who are here more for their veteran presence (Marcus Hahnemann or Herculez Gomez) to squad players (like Cam Weaver or Nathan Sturgis) to in-their-prime starters (like Erik Friberg or Joevin Jones).

Over the last week, we saw this play out again as Brad Smith and Román Torres rejoined the team less than a year after bidding farewell. That gives the Sounders 10 of the 11 players who started in last year’s MLS Cup final and five players who have started in all three of their finals appearances. Especially in MLS, this sort of continuity is almost unheard of.

This can be seen beyond the roster as well all around the organization. Taylor Graham was one of the holdovers from the USL team to the MLS one, leveraged his Stanford degree to get a post-playing job with the Sounders’ business side and is now one of the team’s vice presidents. Current coaches Gonzalo Pineda and Djimi Traore both played for the Sounders, as did announcers Kasey Keller, Brad Evans and Steve Zakuani. The Sounders Academy is littered with coaches who once played for various versions of the team. Hahnemann, Zach Scott and Roger Levesque are other former players who were once employed by the team after retiring. I don’t feel remotely uncomfortable claiming that the Sounders’ depth of institutional knowledge rivals any soccer organization in North America.

This through-line from era to era helps in small and big ways. There are little things like the continued singing of “Jingle Bells” after road wins or insisting on doing the post-game victory salute even when no fans are in the Brougham End that serve as a cultural touchstone to previous eras. There are bigger things like the institutional knowledge and ownership of the continued playoff streak.

This Cristian Roldan quote from 2018 — when they were mired in a midseason slump — pretty effectively illustrated the sense of legacy players carry:

“It’s already been a failure to the season, but at this point, we can turn that around,” Roldan said after a tie left the Sounders with just three wins through their first 14 matches. “We have a little bit left to save ourselves from this. We’ve done it before and we’re certainly capable of it. But it’s a matter of not saying it and actually doing it.”

The turnaround didn’t come immediately after Roldan made that statement, but the Sounders did eventually reel off nine straight wins shortly thereafter and shot all the way up to second in the Western Conference that year. I have no doubt the team’s internal expectations that Roldan alluded to played a significant role in making it virtually unthinkable that the players would simply accept their fate.

Finding players who will buy into that ethos is obviously a big part of the equation, which I think is part of why the Sounders keep bringing back so many of them. That those players are also willing to return provides the Sounders with a potentially significant competitive advantage and helps perpetuate this virtuous cycle.

“We have a mantra of trying to treat guys better on the way out than on the way in,” Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey said after Smith’s signing, noting the team will rarely try to stand in the way of players who think they’d prefer to be elsewhere for whatever reason. “Hopefully that helps us preserve relationships.

“We can talk about front office machinations and scouting all we want, but if players want to play for us and good players want to play for us that’s going to make everything a lot easier.”

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