Seattle Sounders FC remains the most successful expansion franchise in the history of MLS — although perhaps with a couple of asterisks.
That was generally true in its first season, and it remains generally true today, even after six MLS expansion teams have followed. One of those — New York City FC — will visit Seattle for the first time Saturday in a nationally televised match.
“I don’t think anybody really appreciates fully what we did at that time,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said Thursday. “There was a line a player used once with me: He goes, ‘You can’t appreciate a character-building moment when you’re in the middle of it.’ It was a little bit like that. When you were in the middle of it and you’re having that success early on, people maybe don’t appreciate how hard it was or how significant an achievement it was. I think now when you look back and you see all the other expansion teams that have come into the league, you realize that we did pretty well.”
The Sounders began MLS play in 2009, accumulating 47 points with a 12-7-11 record. No MLS expansion team since has done so well: Philadelphia Union, 30 points in 2010; Portland Timbers, 42 points in 2011; Vancouver Whitecaps, 34 points in 2011; Montreal Impact, 42 points in 2012; Orlando City, 44 points in 2015; NYCFC, 37 points in 2015.
Beyond that league record, those expansion Sounders also made the playoffs, won a U.S. Open Cup and set an MLS attendance mark with a home average of 30,897 per game.
“(We) got some good results early, and we were able to build upon that,” Schmid said. “Also, the club did a good job in the expansion draft before I got here. We had some players out of that draft that significantly contributed. (Steve) Zakuani did well as a rookie coming out of the regular draft. Adding (goalkeeper Kasey) Keller, adding (designated player Freddie) Ljungberg, and right at the beginning of the season we felt there was a little bit of a hole at center back and (owner/GM Adrian Hanauer) was really good and we worked hard and were able to bring in three center backs, and I think that solidified us.”
Seattle has made the playoffs and led the league in attendance every season since. The club also has added three more Open Cups and the 2014 Supporters’ Shield.
“There have been clubs that have been up and down in our league and have been in the playoffs and the following year are not in the playoffs, and then all of a sudden they win something, but they’re up and down,” Schmid said. “From Day One, (owners Hanauer and Joe Roth) wanted us to be a team that put out a consistently good product. I think we’ve done that, and we’ll continue to work at that and we’ll get that done this year as well.”
Keeping that playoff run alive will take some climbing. The Sounders head into this weekend at 5-8-1 and ninth in the 10-team Western Conference, five points below the red line.
That also puts them behind second-year NYC, which is 5-5-6 and third in the East.
“A veteran team with guys like (David) Villa and (Andrea) Pirlo,” Schmid said. “I don’t know if they’re going to bring (Frank) Lampard or not — sometimes they try to avoid playing those guys on turf. But they’re a veteran team.”
City is doing even better in the stands, drawing an average of 26,315 to Yankee Stadium — fourth in the league behind Toronto (28,262), second-year Orlando (35,275), and perennial leader Seattle (39,848). That Sounders figure is expected to jump Saturday, which will bring their first match this season with CenturyLink Field opened to full capacity.
Oh yes, about those asterisks. MLS was created in 1996 as a 10-team league. Two years later, the league expanded to Chicago, which went 20-12 at a time before draws were allowed and went on to win the MLS Cup and the U.S. Open Cup. That gives them a case for the title of best MLS expansion team, although the counterargument is that the charter members were just two seasons older.
Meanwhile, Real Salt Lake, which began plan in 2005, won the MLS Cup in its fifth season. And last season, the Portland Timbers became the first MLS team younger than the Sounders to win an MLS Cup.