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Postgame Pontifications: Culture of success creates virtuous cycle

By qualifying for the playoffs for a 13th straight season, the Sounders continue to establish their place among North America’s model franchises.

Mike Fiechtner / Sounders FC Communications

SEATTLE — The role continuity plays in a successful sports organization is a little chicken-and-egg. While it’s undeniable that someone must be successful in order to stay somewhere for a long time, there is also ample evidence that giving someone time is usually a requirement for seeing how successful they can be.

No matter how you examine it, however, it’s hard to overstate the importance of continuity in the Seattle Sounders’ success over the past 20 years.

The Sounders, as you probably know by now, officially qualified for their 13th straight MLS postseason with their 4-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday. That alone is an amazing achievement. The only other MLS team to have even qualified for the playoffs in 11 straight seasons is the New York Red Bulls, and their streak is in danger of ending this year. Only one other team in MLS history has qualified for 10 straight postseasons, and that was an LA Galaxy team that played some of its seasons in a league that sent 80% of its teams to the playoffs. The next longest active streak belongs to New York City FC — who are hoping to make it six straight this year — and after them, no one else has even qualified for more than three straight.

What’s even more remarkable than making the playoffs in every MLS season they’ve been in existence is that the Sounders’ continuity of success significantly predates the current era of the team. An easy through-line can be drawn from this iteration of the team to at least 2002, when Adrian Hanauer made Brian Schmetzer one of his first hires upon assuming control of the USL Sounders.

During those 20 seasons, the Sounders have had just two general managers (Hanauer and Garth Lagerwey), two majority owners (Hanauer and Joe Roth) and two head coaches (Schmetzer and Sigi Schmid). The Sounders have now qualified for the playoffs in 19 of those 20 seasons (they missed in 2006) and won four league titles (2005, ‘07, ‘16 and ‘19).

While all that success has made continuity relatively easy, continuity has undeniably made success easier, too.

Asked to reflect on the totality of the achievement, Schmetzer predictably refused virtually any personal credit. He didn’t just draw a line back to his first year as head coach, but to predecessors like Alan Hinton (1994-95), Neil Megson (1996-2000) and Bernie James (2001), and even to the NASL-era Sounders who also had a habit of making the playoffs.

“The consistency of our franchise is that we take pride in what we do,” Schmetzer said. “We take pride in the job that we’re asked to do.

“The fans who have stuck with us through all these years are the real winners. The people tonight were great. The whole atmosphere of the game. ... We ended the game well.”

This was about as entertaining of a match the Sounders have played all year. They came out of the gates firing and led 2-0 just 15 minutes in, and looked poised to run away with it through 30 minutes of domination. Although the Whitecaps pulled one back just before the end of the first half, Will Bruin restored the two-goal lead in the 55th minute and Leó Chú closed it out with a 90th-minute strike that left the crowd chanting his name through the final whistle.

“Yeah, it’s a lot of fun,” Bruin said, with a smile flashing from ear to ear. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Given the high level of the Sounders’ performance both on Sunday and during the season in general, it’s tempting to overlook how difficult the journey has been. Against the Whitecaps, the Sounders were missing five would-be starters who were on international duty. Other injuries left them with only 15 healthy outfield players, making them eligible for an “extreme hardship” signing for the fifth time this season.

This was the Sounders’ 23rd different lineup and Schmetzer has never gone more than two consecutive games with the same starting group. The Sounders have suited up 31 different players, used 28 of them, and 23 have made at least two starts. A roster that has traditionally been one of the league’s oldest is now sporting an average age of about 25, which puts it among the younger half of the league.

For all the change, the Sounders have maintained their high level. They’re currently on pace to finish with their highest-ever point total, best-ever goal-difference and could end up allowing fewer goals than any MLS team in a 34-game season.

The Sounders went through this transformation without having the luxury of spending a bunch of money. Over the last three transfer windows, they’ve made low-cost acquisitions of MLS veterans like Jimmy Medranda (who actually netted them allocation money), Fredy Montero, Kelyn Rowe, and Nicolas Benezet. Previous windows brought in Will Bruin and Shane O’Neill. All of them had performed well at previous stops but were basically freely available for a variety of reasons when the Sounders brought them in.

It was especially fitting that in the game that clinched another playoff berth those six players started and combined for three goals and six assists.

All of them have previously expressed excitement about coming to the Sounders in part because of the culture of success — one that goes beyond gamedays and influences everything from training sessions to off-days — and have risen to the challenge accordingly.

As you’d expect, most of the talk on Sunday was of how simply making the playoffs is basically the minimum expectation for a season. The Sounders very clearly have their eyes set on much bigger prizes. But at least until there’s another game to play, it’s worth taking stock of how lucky we all are to be part of this. And make no mistake, we — fans and media included — are part of this.

“The constant of this club is the relationship between the fans and the players,” Schmetzer again reminded us on Sunday. “I’m just a steward of the club. At some point, I’ll be gone. Adrian will be gone … It’s inevitable. But what will always be there is the relationship between the players and the fans. That’s what’s important.”

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