TUKWILA, Wash. – After the Seattle Sounders clinched the 2016 MLS Western Conference Championship with a 1-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Nov. 27, the three Sounders who have been there since the beginning huddled together separately in the raucous, champagne-soaked visiting locker room.
As their teammates danced and celebrated one room over, Sounders MLS originals captain Brad Evans, Osvaldo Alonso and Zach Scott took a moment to admire their first Western Conference championship trophy and reflect on everything that had led to the historic position in which they now find themselves – with a chance to win the club’s first MLS Cup at Toronto on Dec. 10.
“It was more of looking at the cup full of champagne and being like, ‘Geez, how many of these do we have?’“ Scott explained following Seattle’s practice on Thursday. “We were just trying to figure out how many trophies we have together. It was fun. It couldn’t have happened with a better pair of better guys.”
Since the club’s 2009 expansion season, the Sounders have accomplished pretty much everything but winning MLS Cup. They’ve bagged four US Open Cups, tied with the Chicago Fire for the most of any MLS franchise. They won a Supporters’ Shield in 2014 and have qualified for the playoffs in every season of their eight-year existence, all while perennially leading the league in attendance.
All three originals were in the starting lineup when the Sounders took the field for the first time as an MLS franchise in a 3-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls on March 19, 2009 at CenturyLink Field, with Evans scoring the game’s second goal. All three pointed to that debut match as one of the standout memories of their Sounders tenure.
“I remember the first game after I came here to the franchise, to MLS,” Alonso said. “We walked out and we saw like 40,000 people screaming Seattle Sounders. That was amazing. I’ll never forget that moment. We never thought it was going to be like that so it was unbelievable.”
Added Scott: “The most vivid memory I have is coming out of the tunnel [the first game] and seeing the crowd with those scarves up. That’s so seared in my psyche at this point. It was a truly surreal experience. And the fact that it’s gotten better from year to year, it’s just that much more fulfilling.”
But they’ve also endured eight seasons of early postseason exits and disappointments, finding themselves unable to clear the final frontier – a reality that contributed to the departure of longtime head coach Sigi Schmid after the Sounders stumbled to a 6-12-2 start to 2016.
“I was thinking about this the other day: It took us 300-and-something games to get to this point,” Evans said. “It’s a long road no matter how you look at it. Sometimes it takes teams a year or two to get there. For some, it takes decades. So we’re in a position now where we’re able to compete for a championship eight years into something brand new.”
Through the highs and lows, wins and losses and moments of ecstasy balanced by periods of turmoil, Evans, Scott and Alonso have been there for all of it – albeit in varying capacities.
Evans, although largely hampered by injuries during Seattle’s remarkable turnaround in the second half of the season, is still the vocal leader, one of the team’s most respected voices off the field and one of league’s most versatile all-around players on it.
Alonso, 31, could make a case as the best defensive midfielder MLS has ever seen. His ability to cover seemingly limitless ground to cut out opposing counterattacks, combined with his prowess as one of the league’s most accurate passers, creates a unique and indispensable skillset.
Scott, meanwhile, is Mr. Sounder himself, having earned that moniker as a staple of the team dating back to its days a USL franchise where he won two championships in 2005 and 2007. Considered a long shot to make the MLS roster after the Sounders made the 2009 jump to MLS, he has made 118 appearances over the past eight seasons.
Asked about the bond that exists between the trio, Scott – who announced he will retire at the end of the season back in September – described an unspoken, but mutual understanding of exactly what their place as originals means.
“It’s more kind of an unspoken understanding, I guess, of what it means to the city, the club, to the players that come in year to year and what it means to be a Sounder,” Scott said. “We know there’s a lot of success and a lot of expectations that come with being a Sounder.
“If anything, I think it’s more of an unspoken leadership than something that we’re very in other player’s faces about on the team. But to have three guys after eight seasons left? That’s very rare to happen. So it’s great that it has the potential to end with pulling in that MLS Cup.”
That this group of Sounders would be the team to finally advance to MLS Cup is something that once seemed unthinkable.
Following the brutal start to the season that led to Schmid’s departure, longtime assistant Brian Schmetzer took the head coaching reins on an interim basis with no promises about his future. Even with the arrival of Designated Player midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro from Boca Juniors, the loss of star forward Clint Dempsey to an irregular heartbeat in August – combined with the already sizable hole the team had dug itself on the Western Conference table – made it seem more likely than not that the 2016 Sounders would be the first iteration of the franchise to miss the playoffs.
Then again, Evans said, it might just be appropriate that the team’s first MLS Cup appearance will come at the tail end of a season that also saw them reach rock bottom.
“Even in our carpool midway through the year, we always thought this is going to be a year that [making it to MLS Cup] could happen,” Evans said. “It was always maybe a joke. It was like, ‘Yeah, with the ways things have gone, we’re probably going to make the Cup.’
“It’s just weird how it turned out. Coaching change, we lose Clint, we gain Lodeiro,” he continued. “If 10-15 games in we were getting shellacked every game and the mood in the locker room wasn’t good, yeah, it would have been a different feeling. But come Schmetz[er] and the [other] changes, we gave ourselves a good chance.”
Seattle now go into their upcoming championship bout against TFC in the midst of a remarkable turnaround, spearheaded by a dominant, MVP-caliber 13-game stretch to close the season from Lodeiro that also saw Schmetzer awarded the permanent head coaching position.
Exactly what role their original three play in that final remains to be seen. Evans has seen his minutes diminished during the back end of the season and into the playoffs with a series of nagging injuries, while Scott has largely been deployed as a substitute this season behind linchpin center backs Chad Marshall and Roman Torres.
Alonso, meanwhile, sprained his knee in the second leg against Colorado, although Schmetzer said this week he expects him to play.
It is, after all, the opportunity he’s been waiting for his entire MLS career.
“We’ve won a lot of trophies,” Alonso said. “But we’ve waited for this moment for a long time. Dec. 10 is going to be special for us. We get to play in the final that we’ve been waiting for.”