SEATTLE - JUNE 26: Alvaro Fernandez #15 (L) of the Seattle Sounders FC celebrates with Mauro Rosales #10 after scoring the second goal against the New England Revolution at CenturyLink Field on June 26, 2011 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
The Seattle Sounders have enjoyed a great deal of success in 2011, but at what point can the season be called a success? There's a case to be made that it's already been reached.
With the Sounders' draw against Guatemalan side CSD Comunicaciones on Tuesday night, Seattle clinched a spot in the knockout stage of the CONCACAF Champions League. This was one of the team's goals coming into the season, and it marks a major step forward in their hopes of becoming one of the region's elite clubs. The Sounders have also qualified for the US Open Cup final and the MLS Cup playoffs, and though the odds are long they're mathematically still alive in the race for the Supporters' Shield against a historically good LA Galaxy team.
Still, the possibility exists that the Sounders will finish the season without a trophy. Seattle must be considered heavy favorites to retain the US Open Cup trophy against a poor, but improving, Chicago Fire side, but there are no guarantees in knockout tournaments. Despite likely receiving a first round bye in the MLS Cup playoffs, the flaws in the system's construction mean the second and third best teams in the league appear destined to meet in the conference semi-finals. At the moment that would mean a two-legged affair against a resurgent Real Salt Lake side that handed the Sounders their first defeat in over a month just three weeks ago and enjoy an unparalleled home-field advantage. That means that despite the Sounders' excellent regular-season performance, there's a good chance that they'd be considered underdogs in the conference semifinals and remain without a win in the playoffs in the three years since joining MLS.
The above would of course be a worst-case scenario, but it's entirely plausible. Seeing as how the Sounders' chances at a Supporters' Shield depend upon what would be a monumental collapse by the Galaxy and Seattle winning the CONCACAF Champions League would be an unprecedented accomplishment for an American team, it's possible to envision a scenario in which the team ends the season with the Cascadia Cup as their only silverware. What's more, if Seattle were to fall to their first round playoff opponent and wind up trophy-less this would be (at least in an on-paper sense) their least successful season to date. Should such a thing come to pass, it would likely fall well short of the standards most Sounders fans would have set for the team at the beginning of the season.
Of course, things can change over the course of eight months. Back in early March, no one would have guessed that Seattle would spend the majority of the season without Blaise Nkufo, Steve Zakuani and O'Brian White. There's also been something of a loss of parity in MLS this year; while the middle of the pack is still quite tightly clustered, there's been an emergence of an elite class of teams (to which Seattle belongs) this season the likes of which hasn't been seen in MLS in recent years. The Galaxy were pre-season favorites for the Supporters' Shield, but few people would have predicted their emergence as arguably the best team in league history. These things matter (or at least they should) in terms of how Seattle's season is evaluated; it's all well and good to set goals at the beginning of a season, but those goals are always going to be dependent upon the information available at the time. As things change, so should expectations.
With that being the case, there's a rather persuasive argument to be made that no matter what happens from this point on the Sounders' season can already be considered not just a success but an overwhelming one. The question is simple one: Given the state of things in March of this year, is the club in a better place? It would be difficult to argue that they are not, and even more difficult to argue that the team has not shown tremendous signs of growth and maturity as the season has progressed. There's a toughness that hasn't been in evidence the past two seasons; Seattle's skill players have been the target of very physical man-marking all season long, and in the past where the inclination might have been to allow the harsh treatment at the hands of the opposition and willingness of referees to let a lot of things go to get into their heads, players like Alvaro Fernandez and Fredy Montero have more often than not simply shrugged things off and gotten the better of their opponents by virtue of their superior technical ability.
There's a very good chance that some of that is due to the influence of Mauro Rosales, but credit for that type of growth needs to be given to Seattle's young Designated Players as well. The self belief of the team that they are good enough to win no matter how badly they're being beaten up is evident, and though it's difficult to blame other teams for employing such strategies as long as they're permitted by the referees to do so, but as the season has progressed it's a strategy that's been consistently less effective. Seattle has found the right mix of players and ideal tactical approach, and once things came together the Sounders went on what is unquestionably the best run in their brief history as an MLS team. Included in that run was a historic defeat of Mexican giants Monterrey, playing a largely full-strength lineup on their own field.
That run was also a realization of how good this team can be. The Sounders were fantastic across three separate competitions, getting strong performances from every layer of depth. Building a team that can compete across all competitions is difficult in MLS, and the Sounders not only managed to do it they managed to take a huge step forward in league play as well, and they did so while leaving themselves some major roster flexibility heading into the off-season. The team broke the MLS single-season attendance record, unearthed gems such as Rosales and Lamar Neagle and when things didn't go their way at the close of the transfer window they refused to cave into the pressure and make a panic signing. What's more, sports are first and foremost entertainment. Is there any possible case to be made that this Sounders season hasn't been a complete and total blast?
On every level, this season has been a resounding success. That's not to say there weren't mistakes, but the front office has shown an ability to learn from them in the past. It's also not to say that this team is perfect in terms of performance and results, but that's always going to be the case. But what is clear is that given the cards they were dealt this season, the Sounders have come through on nearly every front. Perhaps just as importantly, there were never over-corrections when missteps were made. It's shocking given the level this club is at to think that they've existed in this incarnation for just three years, but it's true. And though the ultimate goal is to win every trophy you play for, it's important to appreciate the journey as well.
This is a results based business, and fans have every right to expect those in charge of their teams to do everything within reason to win. But they're not the only metric by which progress - and therefore success in the case of a team such as the Sounders - should be measured. Too often fans allow a single-minded focus on some sort of tangible destination ruin their enjoyment of a wonderfully enjoyable journey. You need look no further than the large population of Mariners fans that refer to the magical 2001 season as a disappointment for proof. Sounders fans shouldn't fall into the same trap. This season has been pretty special on its own merits, and it's given plenty of reason to believe that things are only going to get better.