July 4: Sounders season bottoms out at 4-8-3 after loss in LA.July 11: Freddie Ljungberg leaves starting lineup, replaced by Nate Jaqua. Osvaldo Alonso returns from injury. Nate Sturgis moves into starting lineup. Patrick Ianni replaces Tyrone Marshall on the back line.July 20: Ljungberg given permission to negotiate with other clubs.July 25: Blaise Nkufo makes Sounders debut. Sanna Nyassi moves into starting lineup.July 30: Ljungberg traded to Chicago.July 31: Alvaro Fernandez makes Sounders debut. Fredy Montero ends the month with two goals and three assists and is later named MLS player of the month.
Looking at that timeline, it's hard not to point to Freddie Ljungberg's departure as the turnaround point. But no one I spoke to from Sounders FC said that. Interestingly, the only source who would was Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena:
“In my view -- and probably in their view -- that’s been a difference in their team,” Arena said. “I think they turned the keys over to Fredy Montero, as opposed to Freddie Ljungberg, and in my opinion that’s made a significant difference in that team – for whatever reason, I couldn’t tell you exactly; only they know. But to me there was a kind of change in the leadership on the field and who your guy was going to be. And I think Fredy Montero has accepted the challenge and the responsibility of being a leader on that team, and he’s gotten it done.”
Here's what some Sounders had to say:
ADRIAN HANAUER"I think a lot of things changed. I think that there was a bit of a hangover from Year One. We probably thought that we were a little bit better than we were, or we deserved to be a little bit better than we were. I think it started with harder work, kind of midseason – I think a lot of our players, a lot of our leaders, realized that we were heading for disaster and it was time to put up or shut up. I think that’s part of it. Obviously a lot of transactions for whatever reason worked well. Freddie heading to Chicago, Fernandez coming in, Nkufo coming in, getting some guys back from injury. It is a different starting team now that it was at the beginning of the season. I think the coaches did a great job of coaching and working on some issues that were affecting us. I don’t think we were as focused defensively as maybe we could have been, we weren’t getting into the box an attacking the goal quite as much as we maybe should have been. Our finishing wasn’t as good as it’s been in the second half. It’s always impossible to put your finger on what worked, and soccer’s a funny game where you need some bounces. We didn’t get the bounces in the beginning of the year, and for whatever reason it all came together and put us on a nice run heading into the playoffs."
SIGI SCHMID "It’s a bunch of things happening at the same time. We got some guys back from injury – we got (Nate) Jaqua back from injury about that time, we got (Osvaldo) Alonso back, we added some players, certainly with (designated players Blaise) Nkufo and (Alvaro Fernandez). When we traded Freddie, I think the message that reverberated from the locker room was, ‘Well, if he’s moving on, any of us could be moving on.’ And I think everybody dug down a little bit and gave 10-15 percent more, maybe, than they were giving before. So the sum of the parts became a stronger team. Fredy Montero certainly emerged during that period of time. I thought our locker room was always good. I didn’t think that was ever an issue. I think that as all the other factors came together at the same time, and mainly the guys just really grabbing themselves by the scruff of the neck and saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do a little more.’”
KASEY KELLER:"I think there’s multiple things that changed the season. It’s easy to go back and say maybe this and maybe that. But I’m just proud of the guys that did change the season. I think we said for many many weeks that if looked like we just needed to get on that run. And the LA game, that loss there really kind of changed things for us. That was the bottom point where we turned the season around. What a great second half of the season, and that’s what we’re really building on here. Great squad, great group of guys to be able to win the Open Cup, get the points we needed, win five league games in a row to get our selves into this playoff situation. I’m just proud of everybody here to accomplish what we’ve done. I think we’ve got a ways to go yet."
STEVE ZAKUANI"It was a case of either we start picking up points or the season’s done. I think we kind of rallied together as a team. I remember at that period nobody was really pointing fingers, there was no blame. It was just kind of we got into this together we’ll get out of it together. We’ve gone on to lose two games in the last 15. It’s been amazing. We’ve been the best team in the league the second half of this season, alongside maybe Salt Lake and Dallas. We just went on a run. LA made such a strong start, and we made such a strong finish."
JAMES RILEY"I just think it was a collection of things. We couldn’t go any further down than we were. Just kind of all together we were just very down. But we stayed with it. Obviously it’s a long season, so we just stayed with it, kept doing the right things, and (believed) things would turn for us. We’re at the spot know where we can knock off a big-time team and anything can happen."
NATHAN STURGIS"The first half of the year we definitely were struggling and we couldn’t really find it. I think there was a point where – it was really kind of after the LA game, which was our last really bad loss – I think it just really hit us: If we’re going to turn it around it needs to be now. We have to pull together and it has to be a team thing. I think our mindset changed a little bit. I think we changed up the lineup a little bit and kind of shuffled things around. I think that helped everyone kind of turn into another gear."