Success in MLS is all about when you peak.
Shield-winners, such as the 2022 New England Revolution, often peak too early, then flop in the playoffs. Some teams struggle the first half of the year, such as the 2016 Seattle Sounders, but rally and peak late in the season on the way to an MLS Cup.
The 2022 Sounders spent their resources in the preseason and peaked in May. They earned a historic victory and now boast a CCL trophy that is the envy of all of their MLS peers. The team’s performance since then, however, has taken the club from the highest of highs down to an unfamiliar disappointment — watching the playoffs from home.
It was undoubtedly a worthwhile gamble to go all-in for CCL. Certainly, there was nothing in the competition’s history to suggest that anything but a complete effort would end the years of misery for MLS teams. But it is no coincidence that the first year the Sounders did not bring in summer reinforcements since 2014 is also the first year that the playoffs slipped away.
A Familiar Tale from TFC
Looking back at the last MLS team to make the CCL Final, perhaps this frustrating outcome should be less surprising. Toronto FC finishing the 2017 MLS season with a Supporters’ Shield, a new regular-season points record, and a convincing MLS Cup victory over the Sounders in December. TFC then turned their sights on the CCL.
Rather like the 2022 Sounders, TFC went all-in on their winter signings, adding fullback Gregory van der Wiel and attacker Ager Aketxe to their already loaded squad. The team dropped points in league play while prioritizing CCL matches. After an excruciating loss to Chivas Guadalajara in penalties at the end of April, TFC was left to pick up the pieces in MLS. They never could get on track, however, as key injuries and defensive disorganization led to a ninth-place finish in the East. After spending heavily in preseason, their lone summer addition, Luas Janson, was unable to affect the team’s fortunes on a short-term loan deal.
Toronto gambled early, and they lost big, despite having a veteran squad that was less than a year past multiple trophies and an MLS points record. MLS is a ruthless league when a team’s energy goes flat.
What Ails the Sounders
For all the joys of winning CCL, the Sounders were unable to escape the costs experienced by TFC. Injuries have certainly taken a toll, with the absences of João Paulo and Raúl Ruidíaz looming large. But past Sounders squads — as recently as 2021 — have dealt with arguably larger injury issues and have still comfortably reached the playoffs.
More noticeable than any one player’s absence has been the overall malaise affecting so many Sounders veterans. Like 2018 TFC, perhaps the bigger issue is not any one injury or absence, but rather the inability to bring in players mid-season to refresh the squad after a deep CCL run. Mid-season additions often count less against the salary cap, address key weaknesses, and can turn a frustrated team dynamic around. With so much veteran talent languishing on the field, what the team needed most was some new blood, but their resources were already spent.
Despite the league’s desire to win CCL and rival the best squads in Liga MX, salary cap restrictions make it very difficult for teams to prioritize CCL without sacrificing their regular season results. In all likelihood, the Sounders will earn more allocation money from the league for missing the playoffs ($200,000 in recent years) than they will for winning CCL, as Garth Lagerwey has indicated that no allocation windfall is coming from the league as the team looks ahead to the Club World Cup.
Where does all of this leave the Sounders in 2023? If history is any indication, look for a return to the patterns that brought the Sounders to four MLS Cup appearances in the last seven seasons. Perhaps we will see some key departures in winter if Sounders perform well at the World Cup. A player sale or two could provide the allocation money that the team needs to renew itself. But expect the team to hold the bulk of their cards until summer. The goal will be getting back to MLS Cup, and as history shows, victory is all about peaking at the right time.