Nearly one year ago, Sounders FC executives and media gathered beneath ornate sculptures at Chihuly Garden and Glass in the shadow of the Space Needle. Apart from the Rave Green backdrop that hung behind the stage and scarves emblazoned with the outline of the Sounders crest neatly folded and laid in rows in the back, you wouldn’t have known you were there to talk about soccer.
Shortly, Ross Fletcher, Sigi Schmid and Mr. Sounder himself, Zach Scott took the stage alongside Sounders FC Owner and then-General-Manager Adrian Hanauer to announce the future of the organization. Sounders FC 2 would be the development bridge between the Sounders FC Academy and the First Team, playing in the United Soccer League (USL), the third division of professional soccer in the U.S.
“It’s not just about getting minutes, but introducing the ‘winning is learned’ element,” said S2 General Manager Andrew Opatkiewicz, who was introduced in the same press conference. “Allowing players to get playing time at a high level, both from the Academy and those fighting for minutes with the First Team.”
Now, as the USL enters its final act of the season, Opatkiewicz and Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson can watch as S2 knocks on the door of its first-ever postseason, needing only five points to clinch a playoff spot with five matches left in the season.
In fact, no team in the USL Western Conference has been able to clinch a postseason berth quite yet and only Real Monarchs have been mathematically eliminated, but a few teams are in the hunt. Although the Rave Green were unable to bring home an important three points against LA Galaxy II, the club is still inching ever closer to the chance to win a trophy in its first year.
With the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the First Team by taking a trip to playoffs in its inaugural season, Hendrickson sees the postseason as more than just a chance to further development, but as an ability to instill an attitude of success in his young players.
“Part of developing players is giving them a winning mindset, and that’s what we intend to do,” Hendrickson added. “Every day is a learning process and our guys are doing well as far as progression and development, and we are very happy about that.”
Heading into last Sunday’s match against LA Galaxy II in Carson, Calif., S2 sat just seven points away from clinching a playoff spot in the Western Conference. With results around the league, the margin was dropped to five, though S2 wasn’t able to get the result that would have bumped them into first place. The Rave Green are still only three points from the top spot and will be looking claw their way into one of the top two spots by the end of the regular season for a first-round bye and the right to host its first postseason match.
“It was a tough result to bear knowing what we need to accomplish the rest of the season,” said Hendrickson. “We are aiming for the postseason, and we believe that we have the players that are going to help us get there.”
Hedrickson knows a thing or two about succeeding in the big leagues. The coach has won the MLS Cup with three different teams, the Supporters’ Shield three times and both the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League once.
Central to the Sounders FC 2 defense this season has been 6’ 3” Jamaican centerback Damion Lowe. The defender was picked up by the First Team in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft and made three starts for the club in preseason, but was sidelined for the rest of the season with a hip injury. Heading into Sunday’s match, Lowe has 14 appearances for S2 and is the first choice alternate captain when midfielder and seasoned USL veteran Amadou Sanyang is unavailable.
“As a developmental team, it’s very important for us to stay focused going into this stretch,” said Lowe. “It means a lot to the players to be this close to playoffs because not a lot of players would expect a MLS developmental franchise to be in the mix at this point of the season.”
S2 plays two of its final four matches of the season on the road, travelling to face Real Monarchs and Austin Aztex before finishing up the season with two matches at home. Both clubs sit at the bottom of the table, meaning the Rave Green will be foaming at the mouth for an opportunity to nab points on the road in their push for the top of the table.
“Everyone is excited to know we have made it this far, but we know it is going to be a tough end to the season,” added Lowe. “As long as we bring our A-game every week, we have as good of a chance as anyone.”