In any given season, the better teams in MLS can expect to participate in three different competitions. The MLS regular season and playoffs are of course the most important; the MLS Cup and Supporters Shield winners can both lay rightful claim to the title of "Champions" and to a certain extent league play determines the ease of the road to the title in secondary contests. For those teams that qualify, the Concacaf Champions League is likely less of a priority (although the competition is arguably more prestigious) but you'd be hard pressed to find a team that does not approach the individual games as seriously as they do domestic competition. And then there is of course the US Open Cup, clearly the least desired trophy of the three up for grabs but a a tournament with a unique and rich history that some (and in the interest of objectivity I include myself in that group, though for different reasons than some might expect) would argue deserves far more respect than it is given.
That's what makes the way the Seattle Sounders have been constructed so remarkable. The team has already shown an ability to win the US Open Cup, and it's hard to believe their success in the competition was some sort of happy accident. The Sounders front office clearly understand the value of hardware, and the USOC is certainly the easiest path towards that goal. And now, in just the third year of the club's current MLS incarnation, the Sounders look like legitimate (if not leading) contenders to take home multiple trophies this season. As defending USOC champions, they must be considered favorites if they are able to advance past the Los Angeles Galaxy this evening. Though they're certainly on the outside at the moment, contention for the Supporters Shield is quite far from out of reach. As a very near lock to make the playoffs, they stand just as good a chance as any to bring home the MLS Cup. And with most assuming that the Sounders are on the verge of bringing in a world-class, big name Designated Player, Seattle look poised to put themselves in a position to make a competitive run in the CCL.
Because of the constraints placed upon clubs by MLS's salary cap, managing to field a competitive side in all three competitions is a difficult task. The US Open Cup is viewed by many MLS teams as a "take it or leave it" sort of contest, with some of the league's best content to start reserve-rich sides well into the later rounds of the competition. One need only look at the lineup the New York Red Bulls put on the field for Tuesday night's 4-0 loss to the Chicago Fire for evidence, and while New York's team selection went beyond the typical level of nonchalance shown by teams that have advanced as far as the quarterfinals they're far from alone in their guilt in fielding a below-par side in a later round US Open Cup match. The issue with the Open Cup is depth; because the games take place mid-week, first choice players can't always be used and the quality of the bench and reserve players is tested in ways that it seldom is in league play.
With the Champions League, the issue is on the opposite end of the spectrum. In terms of overall strength MLS is second only to Mexico in the confederation, but the Champions League is populated by super-clubs, teams that might not represent the most prestigious leagues but are built to dominate domestically and to put up strong performances in international play. C.D. Saprissa and C.D. Marathón, Costa Rican and Honduran teams (respectively) that the Sounders competed against in last year's CCL group stage, are good examples; to put things in the context of the UEFA Champions League, think clubs like Shakhtar Donetsk or Panathanaikos. There aren't any truly weak clubs in CCL play, and to make a deep run a team must at the very least employ a very good MLS squad topped by one or two very special players, players of a high enough quality to change games and put teams on their back should the situation require it. For many clubs in MLS, making the group stage of the Champions League is an accomplishment in and of itself. Only the elite sides can hope to progress much farther.
Domestic league play is a different animal from both of the others altogether. While it's true that teams built to compete in CCL play stand the best chance of winning the Supporters Shield, those clubs can often see their chances take a hit thanks to injury or decline suffered by key players and such negative turns can be much more instrumental over the course of a long season than the relatively short duration of CCL play. Conversely, the MLS Cup playoffs are structured as such that quite literally any team that qualifies has a realistic chance of winning the trophy. All playoff systems are inherently influenced significantly by luck, injury and form but the MLS Cup playoffs, lacking as they do a group stage or two-legged ties, are notoriously susceptible to such factors.
In short, fielding a side able to compete for multiple trophies in a given year is a difficult task. While all competitions are ultimately tests of organizational quality, different aspects of said quality are emphasized; the Open Cup places a premium on top-to-bottom depth, the Champions League emphasizes peak performance, the MLS Cup is a test of strength relative to the rest of the league and the Supporters Shield a mixture of all the above to varying degrees. There's a reason many Supporters Shield contenders view the US Open Cup as something of an inconvenience; given a choice between putting key players at risk of injury or fatigue-thereby risking success in higher valuer competitions-and starting a below-par squad, they opt for the latter. And while that's somewhat unfortunate, it's also understandable. Likewise, teams that feel as though they have a reasonable shot at Supporters Shield contention or at the very least favorable playoff positioning but little chance of making a run at the CCL title are likely to put a greater emphasis on domestic play. That's the reality of life in MLS, a league that's still expanding-and acutely aware of the dangers of doing so too quickly-and while the constraints the league places on roster construction are most certainly not immune from criticism, the reality is what it is. As long as clubs have to operate under a salary cap, competing for multiple trophies is going to be a difficult task.
The Sounders most certainly benefited from a fair bit of luck when constructing their squad, as the pool of players from which they had their pick during the expansion draft was a fair bit stronger than what Philadelphia, Portland and Vancouver were presented with. But the entire Sounders organization, from top to bottom, deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the speed with which they've been able to put together a team capable of competing for multiple domestic trophies and making a decent run in international competition. The Sounders scouting department has delivered such undiscovered gems as Osvaldo Alonso, Fredy Montero and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado while previously unknown Designated Player Alvaro Fernandez has established his place as one of the Sounders most effective attacking players. Mauro Rosales was quite literally picked off the scrap heap to become the team's leading creative force. Players like Pat Noonan, Zach Scott and Roger Levesque aren't going to be cornerstones of Championship winning clubs at this point in their careers, but they bring experience and leadership to the reserve team and have provided first team depth in some incredibly dire-looking times.
The organization hasn't done everything right, and those in charge would likely be the first to admit it. They've made mistakes and the past and they're likely to make them in the future. But they haven't made many missteps and perhaps more importantly, they've learned from it when they have. This club's story is still being written and it's still remarkably early days in the current chapter. But what they've been able to accomplish in such a short window of time deserves major recognition. This club might not win multiple trophies this season, but there can't be too much doubt that they will sometime in the near future. The way the Sounders do thing might not work for everyone, but the rest of MLS would do well to take notes.