Seattle has enjoyed a lot of regular-season soccer victories over the years, thanks to the Sounders and Reign.
But no league championships.
The Sounders have made the playoffs in all seven of their Major League Soccer seasons and had the best record in the league once — but they’ve never been to the final.
The Reign has made the playoffs in two of their three National Women’s Soccer League seasons, had the best record in the league twice — but they’ve never won the final.
Now the Sounders have begun another MLS season, and the Reign has opened another training camp. And their highly accomplished coaches seem to be approaching that final hurdle from different directions.
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid’s top priority is taking a healthy squad into the playoffs, and he’s willing to risk regular-season points — and therefore postseason seeding — to do it.
“We want to get to the playoffs and we want to be 100 percent healthy when we get there,” Schmid said. “So we’ve got to be sure that we rotate guys as we get further into the season.”
The Sounders finished with the best record in MLS in 2014, but that postseason ended in the Western Conference final. Last season, they dropped to fourth in the West. That forced them into a play-in match before going on to face a rested Dallas, which eliminated them — agonizingly on penalty kicks — in the Western semifinals.
“The most important thing is to be fresh at the end,” Schmid repeated. “I think, yeah, playing away the second game hurt us; but if we’re healthy, I think we get through.”
Meanwhile, coach Laura Harvey’s Reign has been the top team in the NWSL regular season for the past two seasons, and she still likes that path despite back-to-back disappointments in the final.
“Every game matters,” she said. “Yes, we want to get to the championship, and yes we want to win it. But I think if you take your eye off of what gets you there, then that’s the recipe for disaster in my opinion. I think, for me, the regular season is as important — if not more important in a way — than the postseason.”
As a practical matter, Schmid and many others agree that winning the marathon of a regular season is a more telling accomplishment than surviving a sprint through the playoffs. In a fair world, the Sounders might be celebrated as the best MLS team of 2014 and the Reign as two-time defending NWSL champions. However, in this world — specifically, on this continent and in these leagues — the championship goes to the last team standing at the end of a playoff bracket.
Schmid also has a practical advantage. In MLS, 60 percent of the teams make the playoffs, allowing a larger margin of error over 34 regular-season games. You can be the 12th-best team in a 20-team league — even worse than that, really, because of the conference setup — and still get your chance.
In the NWSL, just 40 percent of the teams advance. In the 10-team league, that means only the top four scoot through before the door slams shut. So, it’s best not to get too cute during a 20-game regular season.
“You could lose five games … and that could be you finishing fifth,” Harvey said. “So you have to get that right. And then once you’ve done that, the hard part for us has been getting it right after that. … We just now have to get that right in the final.”
The primary issue is managing the roster, not assembling it. This isn’t baseball or basketball, where some teams seem built for the regular season and others for the playoffs. Harvey and Schmid agree that in soccer, the best roster for one is likely to be the best roster for the other.
So about all a coach can do is try to regulate minutes during the regular season — as Schmid is stressing — and then hope that the playoff serpents of bad plays, bad decisions and bad calls strike the other guys.
It’s a long way to go until autumn. But that’s when we’ll see if Schmid or Harvey — or neither or both — picked the right approach.