Boling: Championship-level Sounders still seek actual championship

Staff writerMarch 8, 2014 

Goalkeeper Stefan Frei makes a stop during Sounders practice in Tukwila back in February. Frei has been sharing goalkeeping duties with veteran Marcus Hahnemann for most of the preseason.

TED S. WARREN/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

When the topic of Seattle Sounders FC arises, the typical conversation starts with the fabulous fan support, record-setting attendance, lively stadium experience and vivid colors of the players’ kits. Generally, it takes awhile to get around to the substantive issue of the quality of the team’s play.

That the Sounders have advanced to the Major League Soccer playoffs every year of their existence, and enjoyed great success in U.S. Open Cup play as an expansion franchise, speaks of an impressively quick ascension and admirable consistency.

Yet when every aspect of the franchise is at “championship” level, it makes being anything less than dominating on the pitch feel somewhat less fulfilling.

As the Sounders open their sixth MLS season Saturday at CenturyLink Field against defending MLS Cup champion Sporting Kansas City, it’s fair to suspect this is an important season in reversing the sense that competitive fortunes have leveled off the past two seasons.

They advanced to the Western Conference finals in 2012 and semifinals last season, but their points total has dropped the past two seasons. They also have slipped to 15 wins each of the past two seasons after a high of 18 in 2011.

Message-board chatter last fall questioned the status of coach Sigi Schmid, but he received front-office support and will be on the sideline Saturday.

Midfielder Brad Evans, a U.S. national team member, has been with the Sounders since they selected him in the 2008 expansion draft. He has the perfect insight into the team’s status and mindset. Asking if this team has plateaued, he said: “It’s a fair question.”

But it’s not one that can’t be asked of any team from time to time.

“With any club, it’s not always gonna be that extreme climb,” he said. “Obviously, our main goal as a club is to win an MLS Cup, and that will never change, regardless of changes on the team, regardless what year it is, regardless how long the club has been around. That will never change.”

Evans pointed out that, despite injuries and personnel changes, the Sounders were well within striking distance of the MLS Supporters’ Shield (given to the team with the highest point total) until late in the season.

“We tied New York (shield winners) at home and were favorites to win the Supporters’ Shield with seven games left, and all of a sudden, the wheels came off,” Evans said. “We probably wouldn’t be having this conversation if we had picked up the seven points we needed to win that.”

But they didn’t, and Evans uses that to support a point.

“To be honest with you, there’s a different feel,” Evans said of this year’s collection of players. “Last year, I thought we had the players to do it, but in the locker room, the cohesion just wasn’t there. Not saying that anybody else was bad or anything, but we needed some people to bring this group closer together.”

That unity, that sense of shared purpose, Evans said, is what makes winners.

“When you hit those rough times, you need to get together in that locker room and know that we’re in this for one reason, for the same reason — to win,” he said.

So, Schmid has spent time during the exhibition season speaking to the Sounders about putting that in the past and focusing on what’s ahead.

“It’s about getting the right mix of players and getting a little bit of luck,” Evans said. “I feel like we still have room to grow.”

All those other positive elements in the composition of this franchise, he thinks, will ultimately elevate the team.

“I feel there’s a culture being built here, and the fans are a part of it,” Evans said. “If we keep putting a good product on the field, it’s all going to push us to get better. Our fans are hungry, and the players are, too.”

If the record has leveled off, it’s not because of a lack of initiative, Evans said.

“We’re definitely not complacent,” he said, “because we’ve seen that if you haven’t performed, they’ll change you out and find somebody else to come in and do the job in your place.”

Having their football cousins, the Seahawks, enjoy such success “puts a little onus on us to bring home some hardware, too,” Evans said. “Our fans think if they can do it, so should we.”

Impatient Sounders fans won’t want to be reminded that it took the Seahawks 38 seasons to do it.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440

dave.boling@thenewstribune.com

@DaveBoling

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