Seattle Sounders FC: From Below the Red Line, All the Way to MLS Cup
On March 6, the Seattle Sounders started their 34 game season. As a club that has never missed the MLS Cup Playoffs in their eight-year stint in the top level of American soccer, expectations were high.
The team looked strong. Stars such as Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, and new rookie signing Jordan Morris created a formidable looking attack. The midfield looked just as strong as years past, and the defense just missing Roman Torres due to a knee injury suffered last season. Right before the season started, Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins left the club and signed with Shanghai Greenland Shenhua FC, leaving the job of star striker to the young Jordan Morris. Let the season begin.
The first match between the Sounders and Sporting Kansas City was going well until a 41st minute red card was given to second year defender Oniel Fisher, putting the rave green on a man disadvantage. Eventually, Kansas City defender Nuno Andre Coelho found the winner by skipping a shot past goalkeeper Stefan Frei from distance in the 72nd minute. Thus began a disappointing first half of the season.
Through the first 17 games of their season the Sounders lost 12 games, bringing only 16 points. Rookie Jordan Morris failed to find the net in his first five games. But things just still wouldn’t go the way of the Sounders. A few decisions from referees lost the team points in winnable games, as well as injuries and missed clear chances. It was looking like this season would be a bust.
On July 24, after a disappointing loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy, Portland Timbers, and Sporting Kansas City, the directors board decided something had to be done.. First, coach Sigi Schmid, who has been head coach ever since Seattle came into the league eight years ago, left the club on mutual terms and was replaced by long time assistant coach Brian Schmetzer. Second, a new designated player. Nicolas Lodeiro, an Uruguayan international star from an Argentinian team, signed with the Sounders on July 27. Lodeiro arrived in midseason form, and thus was fit to go 90 minutes the first possible game. Everyone watching that game could tell this guy was something special. From that moment, the season took a turn.
The change was immediate. The team looked more confident, dynamic and all around more dangerous. With Nico Lodeiro and Clint Dempsey pulling the strings in the midfield and young Jordan Morris running in behind the defence, opportunities were bountiful. Then, just as things were looking up, another disaster. Clint Dempsey, a U.S. international star and Sounders designated player, was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in late August and pronounced out for the remainder of the season. For Seattle fans, this seemed to be the end of the season.
However, the emergence of Nicolas Lodeiro as a new star in MLS, the return of center back Roman Torres, the continued form of rookie sensation Jordan Morris, and the tactics of new head coach Brian Schmetzer proved everyone wrong. The Sounders went on to a 10-4-2 record after the coaching change. Everyone thought “Yeah, the Sounders are playing much better!” but nobody thought they had a chance at making the playoffs. The turning point was a must win game at home against Vancouver on the Sept. 17. After Jordan Morris headed in a late cross from Lodeiro, the Sounders snapped into form; winning their next five games out of seven, they were pushed above the red line of relegation and into the MLS cup playoffs.
The Sounders, now officially in the playoffs, still had a tall order to complete: beating Sporting Kansas City, who had already beaten them twice during the regular season, at home in the knockout round. The game could have gone either way with major chances coming for both teams. Sporting thought they had opened the scoring after defender Matt Besler nodded in a free kick from Benny Feilhaber, but the goal was called back due to offsides which after seeing the replay was very marginal but the correct call.
The Sounders had the most unlikely hero in the end: Nelson Valdez, who failed to find the net throughout the entire regular season, headed in a cross from Joevin Jones to give the Sounders the 1-0 lead. Sporting players and fans were outraged to see that Valdez was more offsides on the goal then Besler was on his. However the Goal stood and the Sounders went on to win the match 1-0.
Next came Dallas. The Supporters’ Shield Winners looked very scary as they came into Seattle for leg one. However, without star midfielder Mauro Diaz, they seemed lost. The team lost 3-0 in the first leg after two goals from Nicolas Lodeiro and another from Nelson Valdez who seemed to have found new life scoring two goals in the span of four days. The Sounders then traveled down to Frisco, Texas to play leg two. They went down early, as Tesho Akindele headed in a cross past keeper Stefan Frei. Desperately needing the away goal that would protect them, the Sounders went on the attack and scored through Nicolas Lodeiro. For only the second time, the Sounders won the western conference semi final and headed to the final where they would face the Colorado Rapids.
The Rapids, who were second in the Supporters’ Shield Standings, also looked a daunting task for the rave green. With U.S. national team stars Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones, the Sounders prepared to hunker down and weather the storm off, attacking the stingy defense of Colorado. However, the Rapids were dealt a huge blow when keeper Tim Howard had season-ending surgery due to an injury suffered in a World Cup qualifier. The first leg in Seattle started off horribly for the Sounders, as a deflected shot from Kevin Doyle found its way past Stefan Frei. Jordan Morris responded with a huge goal off a save from second string keeper Zac MacMath. Late on in the second half, Cristian Roldan was fouled in the box by former sounder Marc Burch, and a penalty was awarded. Nicolas Lodeiro stepped up and slotted home, turning the tie around and giving the Sounders a 2-1 advantage. In leg two, the Sounders desperately wanted an away goal to cancel out The Rapids’ strike from the first match. In the 56th minute, Jordan Morris gave them exactly what they needed. A ball slipped through the back line by Nelson Valdez found the young striker’s feet, who proceeded to clip the ball over onrushing keeper Zac MacMath into the back of the net. As the final whistle blew, Sounders players rushed onto the field with joy. After a season that seemed to be lost, they were going to MLS Cup.
After being left for dead by everyone in late July, the Seattle Sounders did what nobody thought was possible. They completed the best second half turnaround in MLS history. At the end of July, there was a predicted 4.48 chance that Seattle would make the playoffs. Was it the emergence of recently-awarded Rookie of The Year Jordan Morris? The impact of Nicolas Lodeiro? Or the tactical and leadership changes brought by head coach Brian Schmetzer? Whatever it was, The Sounders look to be a team to reckon with in the future. They play Toronto FC in MLS Cup, a winner take all final game of the season on Dec. 10.
UPDATE: The Seattle Sounders proceeded to win the MLS Cup, defeating Toronto FC 5-4 in a penalty shoot out after a scoreless match.