SEATTLE and TUKWILA, Washington — By the middle of April, some six weeks into the 2019 MLS campaign, the Seattle Sounders had slain the dragons of seasons past. With five wins and a draw from six matches, they stood in second place in the Western Conference.
The abysmal starts to the previous three seasons — the Sounders had posted a combined 1-7-2 record in the opening month since 2016, and hadn’t found their stride before June in four long years — hung over the club all through the offseason, a shroud as heavy and insistent as the winter gloom of the Pacific Northwest. Seemingly every question from the press revolved around how the Sounders might avoid a fourth straight grim spring.
Now, it seemed, sunny days lay ahead.
Then came a 4-1 humbling against Los Angeles FC at Banc of California Stadium on April 21. The Sounders would go winless over the next three, post a four-game losing streak later in the spring, and labor to a mere 11-10-7 record after that impressive start.
They finished the season second in the Western Conference with a 16-10-8 record. But it wasn’t, frankly, a terribly good regular season for the Sounders, something they are more than willing to admit.
“It’s been an up and down season for us,” said Cristian Roldan on Thursday. “If you talk to the players, the front office, the coaches, I think a lot of guys weren’t pleased with how we did during the regular season. Although we finished second, and narrowly got there, the fact that it was an up and down season and we didn’t compete for Supporters’ Shield with the amount of talent that we have, I would have said that this was not the best year that we’ve had.”
Injuries certainly played a part. Most notably, defender Chad Marshall was forced to retire midseason with a degenerative knee condition, and creative midfielder Victor Rodriguez was hampered by leg injuries for much of the campaign.
“This year has been kind of a struggle for us,” said defensive midfielder Gustav Svensson. “We haven’t done as well as we wanted to.”
The team also lost as many as 10 players at a time to international duty.
“It’s really difficult,” said Sounders assistant coach Preki, “when that group, every three, four, five weeks, disappears for 10 days. It’s really tough to find a rhythm, a continuity to our game.”
Things improved after the Gold Cup, though, and the Sounders closed the season out with a 5-2-1 stretch that catapulted them back into second place in the Western Conference. With a 3-0 record in the playoffs, they have now won eight of their last 11 matches and host MLS Cup for the first time in club history when Toronto FC visits on Sunday afternoon.
They saved their best soccer of the season for the Western Conference final, thoroughly outplaying heavily-favored LAFC on the way to a 3-1 win. They have bested their three playoff opponents by a combined score of 9-4.
“I think we kinda had a new mentality coming back from Gold Cup,” said Morris. “Guys were refreshed, got away for a bit, and knew how important it was to finish as high as we could because of the new playoff format, and how important a home game is. And I think that was really drilled into us when we got back, both by the coaching staff and [by] the experienced guys on the team, how important that would be.”
For Svensson, the turnaround was a matter of character.
“We started out really well,” he said, “then we had a couple of games where we didn’t play as well as we wanted to, we didn’t get the results. So being able to end up second in our conference, being able to win the Western Conference and then have the final here means a lot to us. And I think it shows that we are a team to reckon with. And I think it shows that we have a lot of players who will never give up. It doesn’t matter how we play or who we play, we will always end up on the right side of the scoreboard.”
Preki, a man who has been around MLS since debuting as a Kansas City Wizard in the league’s inaugural season, knows success is all about timing, something the Sounders seem to have figured out as they make their third MLS Cup appearance in four seasons.
“In the history of this league,” he said, “it’s not how you start, it’s always how you finish. Obviously we have found a way to get on the good side of things.”