The Sounders FC has carried high expectations throughout their four years in Major League Soccer.
So they have a dichotomy of feelings when looking back on the 2012 season.
Their fourth season saw the Sounders finish third in the Western Conference and just three points away from finishing third overall in the league, reach a fourth straight Open Cup final, advance to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal for a second straight year and play in the Western Conference Championship series for the first time in club history.
In addition to the team success, Eddie Johnson and Osvaldo Alonso earned MLS All-Star nods at midseason and both also have been involved in the postseason awards – Johnson winning Comeback Player of the Year and Alonso earning a spot in MLS Best XI. Michael Gspurning is also a finalist for the Goalkeeper and Newcomer of the Year awards.
Yet they eternally expect more and know that they aren’t far from getting there.
“We always set our goals at a very high level, so we’re always a little bit dissatisfied when we don’t achieve those very lofty goals,” said head coach Sigi Schmid in a year-end press conference alongside owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer. “Those goals are also in our reach.”
And so Schmid, Hanauer and the Sounders technical staff turn their attention toward the off-season instead of the MLS Cup final this Saturday, which will feature the LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo.
They will do so knowing, though, that the club will be looking to make small tweaks and not drastic changes in order to climb the ladder to reach those lofty goals in 2013.
“There is still another level for us to get to, but I think we are in view of the summit,” Schmid said. “This is going to be a difficult off-season with the cap constraints and possible changes that always come in the off-season. It’s also one I think we’ll get through and we’ll make the decisions that we think are best for the team and we’ll put a very competitive on the field again next year.”
While emphasizing the success of Seattle’s core of players that have been together for four years, Hanauer also pointed out that change can be expected before 2013.
But that is nothing new for the Sounders camp.
Last year, 14 players were new to Seattle’s roster while 15 were gone from the 2011 squad. There’s no telling if similar change can be made, but Hanauer was clear that change will come to the Sounders in 2013, in part because of the cap constraints that comes with keeping a core together.
“What was always going to be the case was, we were going to get through this season – whether we won an MLS Cup, whether we won and Open Cup, whether we won the Cascadia Cup, no matter what happened in Champions League – and we would reassess things,” Hanauer said. “I’ve said it every year that the team the following year will be different than the one we had this past year. That will be the case again come next preseason. Whether the changes are moderate or dramatic – we’ll figure that out along the way. We’ve kept this core around for four years and certainly pieces have changed in and out. Each year gets a little more challenging from a cap-management standpoint.”
Schmid had trouble pinpointing any particular area that the Sounders needed dramatic improvement in on the field. They were the only team in MLS that ranked in the top five in both scoring and defense, finishing fifth with 51 goals scored and second in goals allowed with 33.
The changes, to Schmid, will be simply taking the things they were successful at and doing them even better. It will also come in the team’s mentality.
“It’s not a situation where we can improve one area and that alone will put us into the next level. Anytime you can find improvement, you do it,” he said. “Can we play like we did in our last game of the season against LA every game? Can we bring that desire, that heart, that commitment and that resolve into every game we play. It’s hard to do over 34 games, but it’s certainly something that’s a goal.”
Improvements may also come in the infrastructure of the team, where Hanuaer will assess each facet of the organization and how it can be improved to help the success of the team on the field.
The whirlwind around MLS will kick off not long after MLS Cup on Saturday, with both stages of the Re-Entry Draft soon to follow, player signings and trades from within MLS and transfers from abroad, as well as the SuperDraft in January.
It will make for a busy off-season for everyone in the league, including the Sounders.
Said Hanauer, “We’ve got our work cut out for us in terms of who we are able to bring back. And then beyond that, what we decide to do with the group that was here in 2012 and how we move forward and how we construct the team that sets us up for next year and beyond and gets us into another position where we think we have a better chance of winning MLS Cup than we did even this year.”
All in hopes that next season he can address the media after MLS Cup, instead.