There is a common sports cliché that teams are like families.
In 2007, when the Seattle Sounders won the USL title, that phrase could not have been more true. For all of the successes of the team, though, there was plenty of adversity that galvanized the Sounders at a time of great uncertainty.
“You could just see it. Every single game and every single practice things came together. People understood each other more. I think one of the most important things was that after games when we were on the road, everybody went out together and had dinner or had a drink,” said Seattle’s captain, defender Danny Jackson. “There weren’t cliques. Everybody stuck together. That was the defining piece to the puzzle in terms of our team. The chemistry was strong on the field, but was just as strong off the field.”
The season got off to a horrid start. Just two seasons from winning the 2005 championship in a shootout over the Richmond Kickers, Seattle again had high expectations, but fell woefully short early in the season with a 1-4-3 start.
That lone victory came in the first match played by a little-known French player who came to Seattle hoping to land a spot as a left back. However, Head Coach Brian Schmetzer thought Sebastien Le Toux fit the team more in an attacking role and slowly eased him up the field, first as a midfielder and then, on May 23, as a forward.
In that May 23 match, Seattle beat the Carolina RailHawks 1-0 to start a five-match unbeaten streak that got the Sounders back to .500 at 5-5-3. A 1-0 loss to the Montreal Impact on June 23 triggered another lengthy unbeaten streak, but this one would carry them much further, lasting over two months and rocketing Seattle to the top of the standings.
The Sounders went 9-0-2 from June 23 until August 26, but their success wasn’t limited to USL play. They also won three straight matches in the U.S. Open Cup to reach the semifinal, topping the Portland Timbers 2-1 in the second round before dominating victories over Chivas USA (3-1) and the Colorado Rapids (5-0).
Those were no slouch MLS opponents either.
The Rapids featured U.S. National Team members Pablo Mastroeni, Conor Casey and Herculez Gomez, as well as 2009 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Zach Thornton. The opposition laid in front of Seattle didn’t matter though. They had the belief they had could conquer any foe.
“If you look at the first 11, that was a team that compete with anybody,” said defender Kevin Sakuda, who himself shifted from a holding midfield role to right back when Schmetzer added Kenji Treschuk to fill his former role. “By the end of the year, there was just a confidence in the team that we were going to get results. We started the year slow and then we just started winning games and it never seemed to stop.”
Added Jackson, “As the season went along, we gelled more and more and everybody played their part. We all played for each other.”
A late season loss to the Minnesota Thunder and heart-breaking 2-1 overtime defeat against FC Dallas in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal proved to be just the wake-up call Seattle would need.
After the loss to Dallas, Seattle outscored their opponents 8-0 over the next four matches, including both legs of the quarterfinal playoff series against the RailHawks.
The semifinal would be a much stiffer challenge, though.
The first leg against the Puerto Rico Islanders was at Juan Ramon Loubriel Stadium, where Puerto Rico had just two losses in 14 home matches that season.
There, goalkeeper Chris Eylander became legendary with his performance in the away leg, making nine saves in a 2-1 Sounders win despite Jackson being sent off in controversial fashion early in the second half, that gave them momentum going into the second leg in Seattle.
“The adversity and that environment … many teams would have crumbled,” Jackson said. “We held strong and pulled through.”
Though Seattle would lose the second leg 1-0 and a winner couldn’t be found after a 1-1 overtime period, they went to a shootout, where Eylander shined again, saving two shots to put the Sounders into the final.
There, they would be welcomed with more adversity, this time in the form of an uncertain future. Rumors circulated in the days before the final that Seattle would join Major League Soccer in 2009, leaving the future of the USL club in doubt. Players, in the days before the championship game at Starfire, didn’t know if that would be the last time they played in Seattle together.
What could have torn them apart, instead brought them closer together, though.
“I thought about it as a positive. There was so much more buzz around the game because of that,” Jackson said. “People were talking more about it and we had more spotlight on us going into that game and that made it more fun.”
The fun times of the whole season came to a crescendo in the final when Seattle dominated the Atlanta Silverbacks 4-0 in front of a standing room only crowd at Starfire.
The team of Eylander, Sakuda, Jackson, Taylor Graham, Zach Scott, Treschuk, Leighton O’Brien, Josh Gardner, Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar, Roger Levesque and Le Toux, with notable bench contributors like Greg Howes (who had two goals in the final), Noah Merl, Nathan Knox, Andre Shmid and longtime Sounder Craig Tomlinson were champions again.
It wasn’t because of one star, though Le Toux did win the league’s MVP award after scoring 10 goals to share league-leading honors.
“The biggest thing, I think, was that we had a lot of talented players, but nobody played for themselves,” Jackson said. “The team concept was really important on that team. It really culminated in that championship game and we dominated.”
It was an uncommon bond that fueled the championship and one that could not be manufactured or faked.
“The culture of the team was the most important piece. Brian did a good job of assembling a group of players, both previous to that year and that year, and there was a core group with good character,” said Darren Sawatzky, an assistant coach on the 2007 team. “They played together for so long and knew what each other was about. Off the field they hung out. With the culture of that team, you just knew they were going to win it.”
Sakuda agreed, “The groups that we had in Seattle were always different. The culture. The camaraderie. Those were things I never experienced with other teams. I’m still best friends with those guys. It was always such a good group of people.”