The sign says it all as the Sounders huddle at the start of the U.S. Open Cup final against the Columbus Crew in Seattle. At midseason there was little evidence the Sounders would be a factor come the MLS playoffs. Now they enter the playoffs as the league’s hottest team (AP Photos).
You do remember that 4-0 home pounding the Seattle Sounders absorbed at the hands of a relentless Galaxy back in May, right?
They do in Seattle as the following story illustrates where the defeat was taken so seriously you’ll recall, supporters were given their “money back” – a comp on a game next season.
What monster has the Galaxy created? Associated Press Sports Writer Tim Booth has more here:
TUKWILA, Wash. AP) — In just a few months, the Seattle Sounders went from being one of the biggest flops in Major League Soccer to the opponent everyone was trying to avoid.
Gone are the questions about how a team considered a preseason favorite in the MLS could be so dysfunctional for the first three months of the season. The Sounders begin the playoffs on Sunday night against Los Angeles as the hottest team in the league during the second half of the season.
“Anytime you can in the middle of a season totally change your fortune, that is impressive,” veteran Seattle goalkeeper Kasey Keller said Thursday. “That takes a strong mindset through your whole organization. Guys picked it up. We weren’t achieving what we were capable of doing. Ownership and management made some tough decisions, put the pressure on the players to perform and the guys stepped up and made it happen.”
Los Angeles finished with an impressive 59 points and claimed the league’s Supporters’ Shield for the best regular-season record, but no one has been hotter than the Sounders. The Sounders went 10-2-3 over their final 15 league matches, seven points better than any other playoff team.
The home-and-home aggregate total playoff series starts in Seattle with the second half being played Nov. 7 in Carson. The Galaxy swept the season series, posting a 4-0 rout at Seattle in May that prompted the Sounders management to give season-ticket holders a one-game credit on their 2011 season tickets as a “refund” for the Sounders’ poor play.
“We’re a much different team than when we played them in the last two league games,” said Seattle coach Sigi Schmid, who grew up in the South Bay. “The composition of our team is different. I think the way our team plays is a little bit different as well. So from that standpoint I think we are a lot different.”
How bad was it for Seattle? During a 10-game stretch starting in late April and continuing into early July, the Sounders went just 2-7-1 and earned a mere seven points in the standings. Swedish midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, right, the Sounders’ first designated player, was disgruntled and looking at options elsewhere as he trained away from his teammates while trying to recover from an ankle injury. Meanwhile, the rest of the Sounders were trying find the answer for an on-field turnaround.
Keller said it’s too simplistic to look at the July 30 trade of Ljungberg to Chicago as the
answer to all of Seattle’s problems. It was actually a few weeks earlier, when the drama
between Ljungberg and the Sounders started, that Seattle finally turned the corner.
“Sometimes it takes a move to spark something. In this case it happened to be Freddie,” Keller said. “Maybe it’s not necessarily Freddie wasn’t here, but it was somebody else saying, ‘Oh man, if they are willing to make that (move) then I better step this thing up because I may be the next one to go.’ There is a lot of little factors.”
Starting with their 1-1 draw with FC Dallas on July 11, Seattle took off. They went 5-0-2 over their next seven matches to get back into playoff consideration, then closed the season with an impressive run of five wins in six matches.
And while Seattle was winning, it was flying all over North and Central America competing in the CONCACAF Champions League and winning a second straight U.S. Open Cup title.
“That, I think, is what is most impressive. It was an entire team effort, making changes on a midweek, some guys having to play a bunch of games consecutive, just a great, great team effort,” Keller said.
Helping was Seattle settling on a starting 11 that perhaps didn’t feature its top players all the time, but worked well together. Alvaro Fernandez, who played for Uruguay in the World Cup and was signed by Seattle as a designated player, has started just four of his 12 league games since arriving in late July.
Meanwhile, unheralded midfielder Nate Sturgis, a former Galaxy player Schmid swiped from Real Salt Lake, has started 16 games this season, becoming a key component to Seattle’s late-season success. Now comes the challenge of bettering last season when Seattle was dumped in the playoffs by Houston.
“For us the motivation is definitely there,” Schmid said. “We want to do better than we did last year. We got a chance to go up against the Supporters’ Shield winner and if you want to win a championship you are going to have to beat a team like that eventually.”