There is the unmistakable scent of history lingering at every switchback turn of the Seattle Sounders’ remarkable 2016 campaign. In a multitude of ways, I wouldn’t expect several of the Sounders’ feats of the last year to be equaled any time soon, if ever.
You well know by now the Sounders climbed from 10th to fourth in the Western Conference in the span of little more than three months. They integrated new pieces on the field, a new head coach and ostensibly a new direction in record time and made a madcap dash through the 2016 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs look routine.
Six postseason games later and the Sounders had their first MLS Cup.
The 2016 season was special for the Sounders in a dizzying variety of ways. The storylines are all too perfect in hindsight, which is why it’s helpful to take a look at how all of them came together. The 2016 MLS Cup title meant a lot of things to a lot of different people. Here are a few examples.
Osvaldo Alonso’s Special Year
It’s easy to forget that before the 2016 season started, the Sounders were open to the idea of trading Osvaldo Alonso. That doesn’t mean they particularly wanted to be rid of him, but if the right deal came along? General Manager and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey was listening, at the very least.
Alonso proceeded to cobble together the year of his career, turning back the clock to his early days with the Sounders to lead the league in a number of different metrics. He had a career highs in passing totals and accuracy, was as good defensively as he’s ever been, stayed healthy and was as disciplined as ever in terms of drawing cards. This was the best version of Alonso, and the fact that he wore the captain’s armband while parading the MLS Cup around BMO Field last weekend was a sweet finish.
But this year was special for Alonso for another, far more personal reason. Before last October, Alonso hadn’t seen his father in Cuba in eight years due to the tight travel restrictions ringing the country. That changed in late 2015, and it wasn’t long until Alonso’s father traveled to his first Sounders game. He was in attendance in Toronto, and cameras captured a meaningful hug between the two after the match. A little over a year after seeing his father for the first time in nearly a decade, the two were celebrating the greatest triumph of Alonso’s sterling career. Is it getting dusty in here?
If you listened to our interview with Brian Schmetzer on The Sound of Soccer, you well know how circuitous his path was to becoming the head coach in 2016. From construction to USL to assistant to interim head coach to head coach to MLS Cup champion over the span of two decades, Schmetzer perhaps never thought he’d be here.
And yet here he is, the first coach to lead the Sounders to an MLS Cup less than five months after assuming the job. Life is crazy.
It’d be one thing if Schmetzer was simply a good coach elevated to a position he deserved before leading the Sounders to glory. It’d be impressive regardless. But Schmetzer is a native son, born and raised in Lake City and as understanding of the club’s lore as anyone alive. Go back and look at the photos of a shaggy-haired Schmetzer playing in those old-school Sounders jerseys from the 1980s and you come to realize this almost immediately.
That added another layer to Schmetzer’s triumph. He continually refused to take credit, deflecting always to the players. He even walked with the fans during the victory march, preferring to leave the trollies to the players and front office members. He is a man of the people, as connected to them as any coach in MLS history. And he proved triumphant in a more resounding way than any of them.
Zach Scott Goes Out A Champ
Speaking of deep ties to the organization, no one player has ever meant more to the Sounders than Zach Scott. The center back was not particularly heralded when he came out of Gonzaga in the early 2000s, but he quickly established himself as a vital part of the team’s run in the USL, including winning two titles in 2005 and ’07. Some 350 appearances later and Scott finally has the MLS championship he so long awaited.
Nobody in club history has more appearances than Scott, but to think that his career would go out like this? Fairy tales aren’t this clear-cut.
Late in the season, after Scott announced his retirement, the Sounders’ playoff hopes still weren’t even assured. They had work to do, and whether Scott’s career would dead-end at game 34 was still unclear. When the team rolled out the Zach Scott bobblehead before a home match coinciding with his retirement announcement, his career achievements were listed on the box.
Turns out they needed one more.
Scott will always be Mr. Sounder here. He’s been an important ambassador for the club in a variety of ways, but the fact that everyone knew he was retiring added an extra level of urgency to the team’s playoff run. So the fact they were able to send out Mr. Sounder with the biggest win in the history of the club? Almost unbelievable.
Garth Lagerwey’s Past Becomes Present
When Lagerwey arrived in the 2014-15 offseason as the team’s personnel guru, nobody was particularly certain how long it would take for his maneuvers to take root. Rome was built over centuries, not in a month, so expecting too much too soon was always a fool’s errand.
But Lagerwey’s time in the same position at Real Salt Lake provided some clues. And they turned out to be pretty prescient hints.
Lagerwey took over at RSL late in 2007 and got to work. The team finished second-to-last in the league in terms of total points that year, but a bevy of personnel moves (with the help of the excellent Jason Kreis) pulled RSL to third in the West and to an eventual Western Conference Championship appearance. A year later, in 2009, RSL won its first (and only) MLS Cup title. It didn’t take long.
Now take a look at his time in Seattle. He arrived at the tail end of 2014, and while the Sounders were Supporters’ Shield winners that year, they couldn’t break out of the pack in the Western Conference playoffs. In 2015, Lagerwey and then-coach Sigi Schmid engineered a summer signing blitz and the Sounders finished in the Western Conference Semifinals.
Two years after he arrived, much like at RSL, the Sounders won their first MLS Cup trophy.
There was much more at play here than just Lagerwey, of course, and the players on the field ultimately did the heavy lifting. But the fruits of Lagerwey’s efforts were on full display in Toronto. There was of course Nicolas Lodeiro, who Lagerwey spent so much time recruiting from Boca Juniors. There was Jordan Morris, the Homegrown who Lagerwey made no secret about valuing. Of course there was the young Cristian Roldan, who Lagerwey somehow managed to trade up and draft at No. 16 in 2015. Andreas Ivanschitz, Roman Torres, Joevin Jones, Tyrone Mears and Nelson Valdez were all signed under Lagerwey’s watch as well. All of them had roles to play down the stretch.
Nobody was sure how long the league’s most-respected GM would take to settle in with the league’s most well-supported club. MLS got its answer perhaps more quickly than it expected.