Editor's Note: The following is the first in a three-part series recapping Sounders FC's 2015 season. The final two parts of the series will appear on SoundersFC.com later this week.
Seattle’s 2015 season did not begin meekly.
Twenty five minutes into the Sounders’ season, that tremendous roar without parallel in MLS rose from CenturyLink Field for the first time in 2015. Clint Dempsey, the man upon whose shoulders rested so much anticipation, scored a penalty. The first goal of Seattle’s season. There would be two more that crisp March 8 evening, paving the way for a 3-0 win over the New England Revolution to begin the season on the highest of highs.
Taken as a whole, the Sounders’ season can be easily broken into three relatively distinct chunks, forming something resembling a traditional play structure in three acts.
The first represented the team’s rocket-charged rise under the auspices of a uniquely possession-oriented style. That ended in early June. The second act covered the next two months and followed the Greek format of plot twist, obstacle, crisis and turning point. Finally, the third act was the anticipated climax, when the protagonist finds his feet and offers a final resistance.
Now, the focus is on the first establishing act, when the Sounders were being molded into the most fearsome outfit in MLS behind a healthy XI that quickly planted itself in the ground as the best team in MLS.
It was not an even ascent to the top. After the rousing win over the Revolution, it took the Sounders almost a month to win another game. They marked down a 3-2 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes in which a learning back line caved, and a scoreless draw against FC Dallas sent them into April with four points from their first three matches. Not bad, but only a taste of things to come.
After a tight 1-0 loss away to the LA Galaxy on April 12, the Sounders jammed the accelerator to the floor and flew into the summer months with more momentum than anyone in MLS. Through the end of May, the Sounders went 6-1-1, and the only loss was a high-flying 3-2 barnburner against a Columbus Crew SC team that’s still playing.
And it wasn’t just that Seattle was winning. The Sounders were doing it with style points rolling off their backs like rainwater.
The most prolific four-game span during that run was a series of four matches from May 16-May 31 from which Seattle took 10 points. Notably, one was against the eventual Supporters' Shield-winning New York Red Bulls, and another was at Vancouver’s BC Place without Obafemi Martins. Over the course of those four games, Seattle attempted 2,547 total passes with an average completion rate of 81 percent.
In the second game of that run, a scoreless draw against Sporting Kansas City, Seattle set the MLS season mark for passes in a game with 667. The Sounders broke their own record a week later in a 1-0 win over the Colorado Rapids.
Look at it this way. Over the span of those four games, Seattle averaged 635.7 passes per game, about 85 percent of which were classified as short passes. While a far smaller sample size, it’s worth noting for perspective’s sake that that was more than 200 passes per game more than the team with the highest regular season average. Which was, not coincidentally, the Sounders.
That’s an astounding testament to the kind of soccer the Sounders played over the first several months of the 2015 season. By the time they’d beaten the Red Bulls 2-1 on May 31 behind a dizzying barrage of offense that racked up 640 passes, Seattle was leading the Supporters' Shield race through the first three months of the season.
While Obafemi Martins and Dempsey were the face of the attack, the true pumping engine behind everything else was Osvaldo Alonso. His dance partners in central midfield changed routinely, as Andy Rose, Cristian Roldan and Gonzalo Pineda hopped in as needed. Each player provided something different: Rose more of a box-to-box threat, Roldan a more patient traditional central midfielder, and Pineda a springboard for Alonso deeper in the midfield.
But the common denominator was always the patient Cuban defensive midfielder.
Alonso’s best game in that early run was almost assuredly the team’s 2-0 win over the Whitecaps on May 17. The Sounders bossed 57 percent of possession, and Pineda and Alonso combined for exactly 200 passes, which set the MLS mark for passes between two players in one game. More to the point, Alonso was a deadly accurate 95 percent on his passes, and he completed all 10 long balls he attempted.
This kind of base helped the attack find a logical jumping off point. This is a visualization of the Sounders’ second goal against the Whitecaps that day.
A bit of a muddled picture, isn’t it? That’s because the Sounders completed 23 passes in this buildup before Chad Barrett finished his chance. That’s an astounding number for any team in the world. Seven of those passes belonged to Alonso as he worked his way upfield with the attack, including the penultimate ball before Marco Pappa played the killer pass to set up Barrett.
That’s as accurate a snapshot as to how effective this team was over the first few months of the 2015 season as anything. Expectations soared into the sunny heart of summer, where the Sounders expected to keep the train rolling into its second phase. Following a rampant 3-0 win over FC Dallas on June 13 that kept Seattle at the top of the Western Conference, it appeared the Sounders were well-placed to do just that.
And then the crisis of the second act hit, and the trajectory of the season changed drastically.