Back in January, when the Sounders FC started training camp, they set forth with some lofty goals.
Win a third US Open Cup. Advance out of the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League. Win the first MLS edition of the Cascadia Cup. Fight for the Supporters’ Shield. Compete for the MLS Cup.
For all that’s been accomplished, though, there is still a hunger that burns within the club as they begin what they hope will be a four-week journey to lifting the MLS Cup on November 20 at The Home Depot Center with their Western Conference semifinal series against Real Salt Lake this week.
“The guys in the locker room know that they’re not done,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “They want to make more noise than they have in years past and we want to come back here (Carson, Calif.) on November 20. The only way we can come back here November 20 is basically to win three games.”
They got that expedition off to a strong start on Saturday with a 3-1 win over Chivas USA at the HDC to close out the regular season with a two-game winning streak and an 18-7-9 record, easily their best finish in three seasons in Major League Soccer.
The mission of the team was clear from the beginning, even if a 0-2-2 start to the season had pundits wondering if Seattle’s star had faded.
“The thought process from early on was keep doing what we’re doing, because we plan on going a lot further in the playoffs than we have before. It’s a different mentality,” goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. “I feel maybe this year we’re a bit better-placed starting the playoffs. But everything goes out the window now. It doesn’t matter what we did today, three months ago or at the beginning of the season. It’s just two games now, and we have to come out and play the way we’re capable of playing and we’ll be alright.”
While Seattle has elevated their play late in the season, Real Salt Lake has faltered. They haven’t won since topping the New York Red Bulls 3-1 on September 21 at Red Bull Arena. Since then, they have gone 0-4-2 while being outscored 13-3.
When playing well, though, they are a force with which to be reckoned.
Alvaro Saborio took the team scoring title with his 12th goal on the final day of the season, topping strike partner Fabian Espindola’s 11-goal output. Their midfield duo of Kyle Beckerman and Javier Morales is among the best in the league. They are getting Morales back from an ankle fracture and Beckerman will return to the lineup after a three-game suspension ended his regular season early.
Defensively, the tandem of Jamison Olave and Nat Borchers in front of goalkeeper Nick Rimando gives opposing forwards fits. They were tied for second in the league with just 36 goals allowed on the season.
In addition, they have made Rio Tinto Stadium a fortress, going 10-3-4 on their home field just one year after going unbeaten at 11-0-4 there. However, their 29-match home unbeaten streak was snapped back on May 28 when a late Lamar Neagle goal lifted Seattle to a 2-1 victory. The Sounders went on to have the league’s best road record at 9-3-5.
“We’re a good road team. We’re very confident when we go on the road and we’ve played well in the couple of times that we’ve gone to Rio Tinto, but they’re going to be motivated and ready,” Schmid said. “It’s going to be a great series, but our goal is to be on top at the end of the day.”
Fredy Montero matched his best goal-scoring output this season with 12 goals and added nine assists. He came on particularly strong as the season wound down, notching a goal or an assist in his final eight matches, totaling six goals and four assists in that stretch.
Montero wasn’t alone in the scoring barrage from Seattle though, as the Sounders topped the league with 56 goals, six more than Sporting Kansas City and the New York Red Bulls, who were tied for second in the league.
Alvaro Fernandez lit up the scoreboard with nine goals and Mauro Rosales, Brad Evans and Lamar Neagle all added five goals apiece to give the Sounders tremendous depth in their attack. Even late-season addition Sammy Ochoa was able to contribute two key goals in the final two matches of the season.
In the midfield, Osvaldo Alonso became the rare commodity – a defensive midfielder garnering attention in the race for league MVP. He dominated the middle of the pitch all season, leading the league in tackles by a comfortable margin.
Behind Alonso was a defense that was the fourth stingiest in the league highlighted by Keller, allowing just 37 goals in the 34-match season.
Altogether, it has made for an exciting 2011 season for Seattle.
But if the 32 players in the locker room and seven coaches have anything to say about it, the excitement has only just begun.