Continued progress for the Sounders in year four

Continued progress for the Sounders in year four

The club took another step forward in its fourth year in Major League Soccer and will take that positivity into the 2013 season.

In a world of absolutes, there can only be championships and failures.

For the first time in the club’s four-year MLS history, the Sounders finished the 2012 season without lifting a trophy. However, their season was far from failure.

For the fourth straight season, they reached the U.S. Open Cup final, falling on penalties to Sporting Kansas City. They also reached the MLS Cup Playoffs for the fourth straight year and are one of only three teams to qualify for the postseason the past four years. If that wasn’t enough, they added a perfect 4-0-0 record in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League to reach the quarterfinals of the tournament for the second consecutive year.

Yet still they finished the season with a bitter taste, falling just one game short of reaching MLS Cup after losing 4-2 on aggregate to the LA Galaxy in the Western Conference Championship series, falling victim to a 3-0 defeat in the first leg that proved too steep a mountain to climb.

“The general message to the team was we have to eliminate those three-nothing losses in the playoffs because we’re showing that we can win playoff games. We did make progress this year and we went one step further, but obviously at this stage we’re all disappointed,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “We need to make sure that the energy with which we played tonight is the energy we play with all the time. Sometimes that's hard over the course of a 34-game season, but it’s something that we need to bring all the time.”

The Sounders opened the season riding a tidal wave of momentum, but it wasn’t without first tasting defeat. After posting a 2-1 win over Santos Laguna in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal match, Seattle fell 6-1 in Mexico to fall 7-3 in the series.

That lit a spark for the team and they went on to top the league over their first nine games with a franchise-best start at 7-1-1. For all that success though, also came a nine-game stretch that saw the Sounders go winless at 0-4-5 before they were able to right the ship and finish the season third in the Western Conference at 15-8-11.

Along the way, new addition Eddie Johnson netted a club-record 14 goals while Fredy Montero scored a career-high 13 goals. Mauro Rosales matched the club record he established in 2011 with 13 assists, too. But the Sounders got plenty of help outside of that triumvirate of stars.

David Estrada started the season in place of Johnson while he recovered from a preseason injury and scored five goals in the club’s first 13 matches, including a hat-trick in the season-opening win over Toronto FC.

Defensively, the Sounders finished with the second-best numbers in the league behind the league’s top goalkeeper, Michael Gspurning. The newcomer from Austria posted a league-best 0.73 goals against average, the third-best mark in league history.

The Sounders also got a lot out of their depth, starting seven different defenders regularly and, late in the season, using a slew of midfield formations while integrating late-season additions Christian Tiffert and Mario Martinez along with the returning Steve Zakuani.

That depth also powered them to a fourth straight Open Cup final and a clean sweep of the CCL group stage. Sammy Ochoa netted four goals in the CCL and added three more in the US Open Cup to lead that stable.

Meanwhile, the Sounders got their typically gutty performances from Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans and Jeff Parke, who all enjoyed some of the best seasons of their careers.

In the playoffs, they stayed air-tight on defense against Salt Lake and got some late-series heroics from Mario Martinez to advance to their first Western Conference Championship, where they would meet the Galaxy. In the series-opener, they let in three goals to fall behind 3-0 leading up to the second leg.

Their confidence didn’t falter, though.

“We still believed,” Zakuani said. “We didn’t come into the game hoping. We really believed we could do it.”

In the end, though, the Galaxy’s first-leg lead was too much for the Sounders to overcome and they went home while Los Angeles collected their second straight Western Conference title.

Still, progress was the key word for the Sounders in their fourth season.

“The progress is, for me, the last six playoff games we’ve played last year and this year, we’ve won three. The problem is the ones we lose, we lose three-nothing and we bury ourselves with that loss,” Schmid said. “We’re showing the capabilities that we can win games, we just need to eliminate the losses by the size they are.”

Soon, the team will depart for the winter with visions of the 2013 season in their heads.

Many will undoubtedly watch the Houston Dynamo and LA Galaxy combat for MLS Cup on December 1 and wonder “What if?” Still others will watch the post-game trophy presentation and envision standing on that platform themselves in 2013.

“We were one game away from hosting MLS Cup,” Zakuani said. “That’s got to be the goal for next year.”

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