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There was tons to be thankful for in 2021

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Let’s take this chance to reflect on an amazing year.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

We’ve never made it a certified tradition to do Thanksgiving posts around here, but this year it feels like it might be more worthwhile than most. As someone who couldn’t fall asleep until 5 a.m. after Tuesday’s game, I understand that it might still be “too soon” to talk about how great this season was. But I also feel like it’s time to put the bitter taste of that loss behind us and focus on the positives of 2021. There were a lot!

Here’s what I was thankful for:

Super successful YachtCon

By the time March rolled around, we were already pretty burnt out on turning in-person events into virtual ones. Knowing this, we really weren’t sure what people would think of making YachtCon into an all-digital event. But any fears we had were quickly put aside once we started selling tickets to YachtCollege: Back to School. In the end, we broke all our previous records by raising nearly $15,000 for the Seattle Children’s Hospital Autism Center, produced about 12 hours of content and welcomed 250 of you to our series of online “courses.” It was amazing and quite unlike anything happening in the world of American soccer.

Players who came ‘home’

This was not a particularly active offseason, but the players the Sounders did sign all had real connections to the area and all three did us proud with their play. Federal Way’s Kelyn Rowe played in all 38 competitive games and registered the first assist “hat-trick” in franchise history; Seattle’s Spencer Richey had shutouts in his only two starts; and adopted son Fredy Montero turned in his most productive season since 2017 while playing for the league minimum. Along the way, they constantly reminded us how happy they were to be back and added to the sense that what we have here is genuinely different.

Players who embraced the community

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone embrace this community quite like Nico Benezet did when he arrived in a summer trade. From the moment he arrived, Benezet made it clear he was thrilled to be here and only seemed to embrace it more as he went along. From his anime-inspired goal celebrations to his social media posts and the way he proudly made a point of attending games for the other teams in town, I’m not sure any new player endeared himself quite to the degree the Frenchman did.

That 6-2 win against the Timbers

I’m not sure I’ve enjoyed a regular-season game more than when the Sounders went to Portland and delivered a beatdown for the ages on Aug. 15. The game had a bit of everything from two Montero goals to two absolute bangers to Benezet’s debut goal. That the Sounders also blew a 2-0 lead only to score four unanswered in front of a hostile crowd only made it better.

That 2-1 comeback win in Columbus

While the Timbers win was clearly the main course, the dessert was probably the road win over the Crew a week later that closed out the first seven-day, 9-point road trip in MLS history. The Sounders gave up a late goal only to get two of their own after the 88th minute. All things seemed possible at that point.

The PNW Experience

Even though the Sounders didn’t win their half of the double-header, the first-ever PNW Experience was a massive hit. Not only did the OL Reign break an NWSL attendance record, but they beat the Portland Thorns. The whole day was a beautiful celebration of Seattle soccer and music and I hope it becomes an annual tradition.

The run to the Leagues Cup final

Although it didn’t end with the trophy it deserved, beating two Liga MX teams on the way to the final was a really fun ride. First it was the thrashing of a very good Tigres team that included Nico Lodeiro’s 30-yard bomb. Then we got the win over Santos Laguna, with Raúl Ruidíaz finishing off a chance created by Léo Chú on the game’s final play. We couldn’t quite close it out in Las Vegas, but it showed the heights this team could reach when they were reasonably healthy.

João Paulo’s #BeastMode goal

It somehow didn’t win MLS Goal of the Year, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been more awed by a soccer play than when João Paulo dribbled 70 yards through the Rapids defense to score. The skill, athleticism and speed required to pull it off was quite literally unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed in person. That it was on the same field as the original BeastQuake goal only made it more fitting.

Watching Alex Roldan boss it for El Salvador

The soccer story of the year might belong to Alex Roldan, who completed an amazing redemptive arc that started when he was cut by the Sounders at the end of the 2019 season. We got a glimpse of where this was going when he won the starting job during the 2020 playoff run, but he followed up by not only winning the starting job for 2021 but playing well enough to be named an All-Star Game starter. The peak came when he was not just named to the El Salvador national team and scored in his debut, but eventually earned the captain’s armband and scored a stoppage-time equalizer in a World Cup qualifier at home. Can’t wait to see where this goes next.

Jordan Morris’ return

We didn’t get the fairytale ended it deserved, but seeing Jordan Morris back on the field just about nine months after suffering his second ACL injury in three years was an all-time feel-good moment. That Morris got himself to a fitness level good enough to play more than 100 minutes in the final game felt like a minor miracle and bodes well for a full return to form in 2022.

We won the Cascadia Cup, again

I know it was easy to overlook as the clincher came in a game the Sounders dropped points, but claiming a third consecutive Cascadia Cup is something to be proud of. No other team has managed that in the trophy’s 18-year history. George has taken up semi-permanent residence in ECS’s possession.

We sorta had a youth movement

That game where the Sounders started five teenager and beat Austin FC on the road understandably got all the headlines, but that was just the most visible part of something approximating a year-long youth movement. The average age of the Sounders starting lineups was 27.3, the youngest it’s been since 2009. They gave five teenagers 2,850 minutes this year, more than they had given to teens from 2014-2020 combined.

The third 60-point season in club history

This was supposed to be a down year after the departure of several key veterans. Prospects only darkened after Morris was seemingly lost for the year. Then we lost Nicolás Lodeiro for most of the year and Stefan Frei for half of it. The theoretical Best XI only played about 49% of the available minutes and they were never all on the field together. Just for good measure, two of the team’s top assistants left at midseason. Despite all that, the Sounders managed to finish second in the West, claim 60 points and become just the 13th team in league history to combine that with a +20 goal-differential.

Feeling like a playoff game again

Like I said, I literally lost sleep over Tuesday’s loss. Still, I found it to be enormously positive that the atmosphere felt like a proper playoff game again. The last time we got that was way back in 2019 and while the 34,000-person crowd wasn’t the biggest of the season, I think it was the most engaged. The tifo was great, it seemed like the whole crowd was standing throughout and the cheer when Frei saved the penalty (only to be overturned) was as loud as I’ve heard Lumen Field since Ruidíaz’s MLS Cup-clincher. In a lot of ways, it felt like we were truly back, even if the result wasn’t what we wanted.

A chance to reflect on an amazing postseason run

As Dave said so eloquently, this is not really the end, it’s just another chapter. But the earliest postseason exit in Sounders history does provide us a chance to reflect on what has been an amazing 13-year run. The Sounders had qualified for 12 straight Western Conference semifinals, won at least one playoff game for 10 years in a row and were riding a 15-match home winning streak in the playoffs. All of those are MLS records that I suspect won’t be broken for generations. It’s damn good to be a Sounder.

All of you

I say this with all sincerity but you all are what makes this fun. I came to Seattle in 2009 and quickly found this community. That I’ve spent the last decade-plus writing about the greatest soccer club in North American history is hard to believe. I hope you feel like I’ve added to that. I know I feel like the readers are just as important to Sounder at Heart as any of the writers and editors are, and I hope you realize what a special place we’ve all created.