The Seattle Sounders are Major League Soccer’s ultimate rebellion.
MLS prides itself, and in many ways built itself, on the belief that it is a league of parity. It’s a differentiator from Europe’s Big Five, where year in and year out, the number of title contenders is only a select few with the biggest budgets.
Major League Soccer is different. There are salary cap restrictions, limits to international players and other minutia that on paper make it incredibly difficult to excel, let alone have sustained success.
D.C. United went to the first four MLS Cups from 1996-99, won one more title in 2004 and haven’t been back since. The LA Galaxy, who have a league-high five titles, won three championships in four seasons from 2011-14. They have missed the playoffs entirely in three of the six seasons since.
Even look at more contemporary teams. Toronto FC completed the greatest single season in MLS history in 2017. TFC won the treble and was a penalty-kick shootout away from becoming the first MLS team to win Concacaf Champions League. The Reds missed the playoffs the very next year.
Atlanta United, who took the league by storm upon their entrance in 2017, won 2018 MLS Cup and was an extra-time loss away from returning to MLS Cup last year. This season, losing star forward Josef Martínez to an ACL injury notwithstanding, they failed to qualify for the playoffs despite an expanded field.
All this is to say that the Sounders’ MLS-record 12 consecutive postseasons are an accomplishment in their own right. But to take that next step starting in 2016 and win four out of five Western Conference Championships, including two MLS Cups and a chance for a third, is nothing short of remarkable.
“A lot of it has to do with the front office,” said midfielder Cristian Roldan. “The front office has made big decisions on certain players, bringing them in, letting them go, making really good business decisions at times with players. It translates to the coaching staff and to the players. We have a winning mentality, and we see it in the decisions they make firsthand. It comes from top to bottom.”
Year-over-year turnover is common in all sports: players’ contracts expire, players retire, players get traded, new players are brought in. Often times that can disrupt the chemistry of a group, even one that’s had myriad success. That the Sounders have done this without any tangible drop off is attributed to the culture within the entire organization.
“If you look at this spell of MLS Cup appearances, we have a good amount [of players] who have been there from the get-go,” said goalkeeper Stefan Frei. “It’s slotting in those new pieces and making them understand what makes this team tick as quickly as possible…It’s also important that those new players get up to speed in terms of what the expectations are to be on this team. We pride ourselves on being a hardworking squad that never gives up and keeps fighting until the very end, as evidenced by our latest achievement against Minnesota.”
It’s hard not to look at this Seattle Sounders team and call them a dynasty, or as Head Coach Brian Schmetzer refers to it, “the D word,” but their level of play certainly has brought it into the public forum, even if the players and coaches themselves don’t look at it in that lens.
“I wouldn’t quite put us into that dynasty category yet until there’s a couple more,” said Schmetzer. “The flip side is I’m very proud of the success we have had because MLS is a league filled with parity…We understand how hard it is just to put yourself in a position to be back-to-back champions. We’re not going to take this chance for granted.”
Added forward Jordan Morris: “I don’t think we talk about it too much. It’s an honor to be talked about in those terms and using that word, but I think it’s just a testament to how good this team has been. The whole time the Sounders have been in MLS, they’ve been a great team, but especially over the last four or five years with making these MLS Cups and winning a couple and potentially winning another one. It’s a testament to this club, this city, to be put in that category.
“Our whole focus is not what we’ve done in the past, but what we’re going to do this weekend because none of that matters,” he continued. “It’s all about stepping out onto the field and trying to win this game.”
The Sounders will have a chance to add yet another star and trophy to their growing mantle on Saturday when they visit Columbus Crew SC in MLS Cup 2020 (5:30 p.m. PT; FOX, 950 KJR AM, El Rey 1360 AM). This incredible run of titles and championship appearances coincides directly with the arrival of Nicolás Lodeiro in 2016, but just as important, the appointment of Schmetzer to the helm in the middle of that same year.
“These moments are precious,” said Frei, “and [Schmetzer] conveys this sense of urgency and possibility really well to the squad and has us focused throughout the year every day to try and build up to that.”
To say that 2020 has been difficult and challenging would be an understatement if there ever were one. Yet, at the end of an MLS season unlike any other, here are the Seattle Sounders, the ne plus ultra of MLS success, competing for yet another MLS Cup title, providing a brief sense of normalcy in a year that has offered none.
“We were talking as a team, and Nico as the captain was like, ‘Let’s cap off this crazy year with one more good performance,’” said Morris. “With so much stress and so much anxiety this year that everyone has felt, it’s been a tough year for everyone. For us to be here is super special to give us a bright moment this year. We all hope to cap it off in the right way on Saturday.”