Seattle Sounders FC’s fourth season was a success by every measure except the ones that matter most.
Measured against the rest of Major League Soccer, the Sounders did fine. Their 15-8-11 regular-season record was seventh-best among 19 clubs, and they were among the final four in the playoffs.
Measured against their Northwest rivals, they also did fine. Yes, Portland took the Cascadia Cup, but that went down to the final game despite the Timbers playing four home games and two away, while the Sounders played two at home and four away. Cup competition is fun, but the truer indication of Northwest supremacy comes from Seattle finishing above Vancouver and Portland in the standings and going further in the playoffs.
The Sounders also shine when measured against other recent expansion teams – with one disconcerting exception. Sounders FC finished ahead of all of the teams that have come into the league after them: Philadelphia, Portland, Vancouver and Montreal. They ousted 2004 arrival Real Salt Lake from the playoffs. And while the Sounders made the postseason for the fourth time in its four seasons, 2007 expansionist Toronto FC is still waiting for its first appearance.
However – and yes, this is where the “however” portion begins – the San Jose Earthquakes, who are one year older than the Sounders, went rushing past them in the MLS standings all the way to Supporters Shield.
The Sounders also failed to measure up to their own previous achievements. This was the first season when their regular-season point total decreased. It was their first season without a trophy. It was their first season without qualification for CONCACAF Champions League.
However, the most meaningful measure is that the Sounders still can’t find a way past the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Yes, Seattle finished two points ahead of L.A. in the regular season. But any comfort in that is a dangerous deception. The unavoidable fact is that the Galaxy has become the gold standard of MLS. And now, while the Sounders are heading into their offseason, the Galaxy is heading into its third MLS Cup in four seasons. With a win, they will go into 2013 as two-time defending champions and with a fourth star above their crest.
Seattle’s challenge is the simple geography that plunks L.A. in the Western Conference. So the Sounders need to figure a way past if they want to accomplish goals worthy of the best fan base in the league.
There are two ways this could happen.
One is that the Galaxy might simply regress. David Beckham has announced the MLS Cup on Dec. 1 will be his last match in a Galaxy uniform, while Landon Donovan has been sending undecipherable signals about his future.
But even if there is a hit to the Galaxy’s current collection of stars, there is no indication the club would fondly toast its successful run and resign itself to mediocrity. Chivas USA has already tried that and learned that in Los Angeles, if you’re not the champions then you’re the Clippers.
The Galaxy reigns as the MLS flagship franchise, and there’s every reason to assume that old stars will be replaced by new ones.
So, if the Galaxy isn’t going to slide back to the Sounders, then the Sounders need to ignite past the Galaxy.
In a quick postseason chat Sunday, general manager Adrian Hanauer indicated that with no Champions League to worry about next season, the club might be freed to upgrade the 11-14 players on the roster, while de-emphasizing lower-roster depth.
That subtle tweak would make sense. But the decisive difference between the Galaxy and Sounders isn’t the middle of their rosters, but the top.
Los Angeles has used its designated players slots on Robbie Keane, Donovan and Beckham. Together they constitute the club’s top three goals scorers and top three assists providers, and combined to contribute 32 goals and 32 assists.
Meanwhile, Sounders DPs Fredy Montero, Mauro Rosales and Christian Tiffert combined for 16 goals (13 from Montero) and 24 assists (13 from Rosales).
In these playoffs, Keane has five goals by himself, while Seattle’s three DPs had none.
The Galaxy has flourished with a system of stars and supporting cast, while Seattle has tried more of an ensemble approach. Montero, Rosales and Tiffert all contributed to the overall success of 2012 — but no more so than Eddie Johnson, Michael Gspurning, Osvaldo Alonso, Jeff Parke and others.
Looking ahead, the club might decide that Steve Zakuani at full health and Mario Martinez over a full season are all that’s needed to take that final step to MLS Cup.
But if a status quo roster brings status quo results, then Year Five could mark a shift in Seattle’s reputation from expansion prodigies to an established club that is always good without ever quite daring to be great.
The highest payroll doesn’t always win. But there’s no getting around the fact that in 2012 Los Angeles drew 23,136 fans per home game, provided its DPs with $9.8 million in total compensation and went to MLS Cup. Meanwhile, Seattle drew 43,133 per home game, gave its DPs $1.6 million in total compensation and went out in the conference finals.