It is often said that it is not how you start a season, but how you finish.
For the Sounders FC, that could not have rung more true than in the 2010 MLS regular season.
Throughout the ebbs and flows of the 30-game regular season, the Sounders have certainly seen their share of ups and downs. However, they finished the season on a strong note with the best record in MLS over the final 15 matches to earn a playoff spot with a 14-10-6 record.
Although they started the season with a respectable 2-1-2 record and looked like a team ready to rekindle the magic from their inaugural season, a disjointed 2-0 loss in Toronto in their sixth match of the season said otherwise.
Masked by the respectable start of eight points through five matches was how much the scoring presence of Nate Jaqua was missing from the Seattle lineup. With nine goals and seven assists in the 2009 season, Jaqua added a scoring touch that made the Sounders a multidimensional attack. Without him, they struggled to find the net in the early going and the loss in Toronto triggered a ten-game stretch that would see Seattle go just 2-7-1 for seven points. The club knew that Swiss striker Blaise Nkufo would be coming after the World Cup, but it looked like the club needed his abilities sooner than that if they hoped to make the playoffs.
At the tail-end of that hideous run of matches though, things started to pick up in the scoring department.
Over the first 11 games of the season, Steve Zakuani and Fredy Montero had three goals each. Over the next nine games, Montero registered a goal or an assist in each game on his way to 5 goals and 6 assists in that stretch. Over the same nine games, Zakuani had 4 goals and 2 assists to keep the scoring pace with Montero. By the end of that period, the Sounders sprung back to life and had gotten back into the playoff hunt at 8-8-4.
After a scoreless draw with Chivas USA, Montero would add two more goals against the Chicago Fire, while Zakuani notched another on the road against the New England Revolution.
Another scoreless draw, this time against Real Salt Lake, preceded a long-awaited scoring outburst from Nkufo. After joining the team July 15 for their match against DC United, Nkufo went scoreless over his first five matches with Seattle, Nkufo missed two games to rest some nagging aches and pains and came back on fire.
First was a hat-trick against the Columbus Crew in a 4-0 win at Crew Stadium. Then he added the lone goal in a road win over Chicago. In the third match, he scored Seattle’s middle goal in a 3-2 win over Toronto FC.
In that match, Zakuani would notch his ninth goal of the season, adding his tenth two weeks later on Fan Appreciation Night at Qwest Field against Chivas USA in a 3-1 win.
Montero and Zakuani finished deadlocked atop the team leader board with ten goals each, while Nkufo had five to round out the top scorers. Montero also topped the club with ten assists with Zakuani close behind with six.
However, it wasn’t just the scoring that triggered Seattle’s turnaround. After Jhon Kennedy Hurtado tore his ACL in a 1-0 home loss to the San Jose Earthquakes, knocking the finalist for MLS Defender of the Year in 2009 out for the remainder of the season, Seattle struggled to find the defensive cohesion that had been their hallmark. Add to that a quad strain from midfielder Osvaldo Alonso and a knee injury to Brad Evans and Jaqua missing the first half of the season and the Sounders lineup was more in flux than it had ever been in the inaugural season.
“When you look at all that, I’m actually pleased how we finished as a team and our overall record because those are four guys who were going to start for us down the middle of the field,” head coach Sigi Schmid said. “I don’t think there are a lot of teams that could have withstood losing that amount of key players down the middle of the field and done as well as we did.”
Despite those absences, on July 11 against FC Dallas, Schmid employed a lineup that included Jeff Parke and Patrick Ianni in the middle of the defense and Nathan Sturgis in the midfield. Once Alonso reacquainted himself with the starting lineup on July 25, the final pieces to the Sounders puzzle were coming together. Nkufo also joined the Starting XI in that match against the Colorado Rapids, along with speedy winger Sanna Nyassi.
As a result, Seattle went on an absolute tear that saw them rocket back toward the top of the Western Conference Standings, finally wrapping up a playoff berth with two games left on the schedule with a 2-1 win in Kansas City.
Over the season’s final 15 games, Seattle had easily the best record in the league, piling up 33 points with a 10-2-3 record. The nearest team to Seattle’s dominance over that stretch was Real Salt Lake, whose 6-1-8 record earned them 26 points and nearly allowed them to reel in the LA Galaxy, who started the year off at 11-1-3.
|RECORDS OF MLS PLAYOFF TEAMS|
|First 15||Last 15|
|LA Galaxy||11-1-3, 36 points||7-6-2, 23 points|
|Real Salt Lake||9-3-3, 30 points||6-1-8, 26 points|
|Columbus Crew||8-3-4, 28 points||6-5-4, 22 points|
|New York Red Bulls||8-5-2, 26 points||7-4-4, 25 points|
|FC Dallas||6-2-7 25 points||6-2-7 25 points|
|Colorado Rapids||6-4-5, 23 points||6-4-5, 23 points|
|San Jose Earthquakes||6-4-5, 23 points||7-6-2 23 points|
|Seattle Sounders FC||4-8-3, 15 points||10-2-3 33 points|
“We couldn’t go any further down than we were,” Riley said of the loss in LA. “We stayed with it and knew that if we kept doing the right things, things could turn for us. We’re at the spot now where we can knock off a big-time team and anything can happen. I’m definitely looking forward to the matchup.
Added Keller, “I’m just proud of the guys that did change the season. We said for many many weeks that we just needed to get on that run. That LA game, the loss there, really changed things for us. It was the bottom point where we turned the season around and what a second half of the season. That’s what we’re really building on. I think we’ve got a ways to go yet.”
Seattle surpassed their 2009 totals in wins (14-12), shutouts (11-10), points (48-47) and goals (39-38). They also became the first MLS club to repeat as Lamar Hunt US Open Cup champions and the first expansion team to reach the playoffs two years in a row since the Chicago Fire in 1998 and 1999.
The Sounders will meet the LA Galaxy in the Western Conference Semifinal beginning Sunday, October 31 at 5 pm at Qwest Field. The return leg will come Sunday, November 7 at 6 pm at the Home Depot Center. Both matches are slated to be televised nationally on ESPN2, with the winner advancing to the Western Conference Finals against the winner of the Real Salt Lake-FC Dallas matchup.