West is Best: The Seattle Sounders and the Major League of MLS

The Seattle Sounders will face Toronto FC in their first crack at MLS Cup (granted, every season since their ascendance to the top flight has, arguably, been a crack at the Cup, but you can dig it).

If you’ve watched the Eastern Conference at all (and god knows why you’d waste your time with that brand of soccer) you *could* come away impressed by Toronto. Reviewing the regular season table reveals that the Reds posted an impressive 51 goals for and only 39 against. That +12 GD was good for the 3rd best in the league behind only NYRB and L.A. Galaxy.

Sure, the only two teams finishing with a better GD flamed out in the playoffs (because if there’s any consistency to MLS, it’s that the regular season means squat to the Cup), but Toronto stayed on a tear in the second season. They’ve scored 17 goal and only allowed 7, for a +11 GD in just 5 games. For a quick comparison, the Sounders are only 8-3 (GF/GA) in the postseason. Toronto is that team that seems to buzzsaw through everyone.

Just like New England in 2014. Remember that team? Jermaine Jones signed after the World Cup and had the Revs roaring. They whipped through the second half of the season, finishing second in their conference, before destroying the Eastern field while scoring 11 goals in 4 matches. These juggernaut Revs were then shut down in MLS Cup, losing 2-1 to the Galaxy.

You can contextualize and analyze this in many ways, but the long story short is: The Eastern Conference stinks. Or, if you want nuance, the East is worse than the West.

The last team from the East in win MLS Cup was SKC in 2013, and they were a once-and-future Western Conference team. Other than that asterisk, you have to go back to the Sigi-led Columbus Crew of 2008 and the 2004 DC United side for the previous Eastern reps to win the Cup. In fact, starting from 2000, the ‘08 Crew, and ‘04 United teams are the only purely Eastern sides to win the Cup in the last 18 years. Only 2 in the last 18 years!*

The true major league of North American soccer plays West of the Mississippi. The Sounders lack the gaudy stats and will be the visiting team in MLS Cup. But they’ve been through the Western Conference crucible, just like 16 of the past MLS Cup Champs.

*in 2000 the KC Wizards, representing the Western Conference, won the Cup. In ‘06 and ‘07, the Dynamo (then representing the West, though they went to the East before returning West) won the Cup. And again, yes the Sporks were in the East when they won in 2013… but they were a once and future Western team. So I am sticking to the 2 teams in 18 years stat.

SEATTLE SOUNDERS: MLS WESTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPS!

Your Seattle Sounders are Champions of the MLS Western Conference!

Last Sunday we beat Colorado 1-nil away, with a gutsy performance by Jordan Morris and the whole Sounders squad, to clinch the team’s first berth in the MLS Cup Final*.

You can heap much laud at the feet of Brian Schmetzer, but a key underrated achievement of his is his steady hand. Schmeltzer’s hiring initially brought stability to a club in flux. Sigi, facing the unexpected departure of Oba, and other roster complications, was forced to tinker with formations and lineups through much of his 20-game tenure in 2016. Schmetzer, aided by the additions of Lodeiro and Torres, had a deeper team to work with, and, once he found his preferred 4-2-3-1, stuck to it. Until, that is, he couldn’t.

Dempsey’s condition, plus the poor health of Evans, Ivanschitz and Friberg (and at times Flacco), have rocked the boat. Schmetzer is a dependable mariner as he’s always fielded the best 11 despite a limited selection. Last Sunday was no different. I’m loathe to h/t to the odious San Jose Ultras, but Goonies do indeed never say die. Right before kickoff we learned that Evans and Friberg were late scratches, and that J-Mo Smooth had been vomiting for 48 hours. Once again, Schmetzer was forced to roll the dice with his selection.

Getting J-Mo to play through his illness was a tough ask. Not ‘cause the hometown hero doesn’t want to rep his city, but because he looked greener than his kit in Colorado. You could see the man heaving and sweating it out. But his perseverance epitomized an axiom of the 2016 Sounders: play hurt. This squad has been hurt by major departures from Oba, Sigi, and Clint and minor aches and knocks by almost the entire roster. This team has been at less than its best all year, and they continue to play, continue to win.

The 11 that took the field Sunday was probably the weakest, in terms of pure talent, than any other that Seattle has rolled out in a Western Conference Final (even in the 2012 we had Fredy, Eddie, Mauro and Zakuani). But they are, arguably, the best team Seattle’s ever had (sorry 2014), and we, largely, have Schmetzer to thank for that. Banged up, bruised and heaving, this is the squad that has a chance to deliver what the Emerald City has always wanted: MLS Cup.

*I totally watched and had my mind blown by the Toronto-Montreal game last night, and am eagerly working on my MLS Cup Preview now. But I had started this post and was interrupted by… well, life. Sometimes, as Johnny Rzeznik of the incomparable Goo Goo dolls sings, …the world gets in your way. Hence the lack of currency with this post, as, before diving into the Cup preview, I wanted to smooth out and post this bad boy.

Leg 2: Seattle Sounders at Colorado Rapids

The Seattle Sounders lead going into the second leg of the MLS Western Conference Finals against the Colorado Rapids.

Though we have the lead, last Sunday was a little bit of a let down for the Sounders. I certainly didn’t predict that we’d allow a road goal to an impotent attacking team:

Now the boys in Rave Green have to score on the road against the kings of the 1-nil result. BOLD PREDICTION: I’ll admit, I’m nervous. A road goal has made a difference in every Sounders playoff series the last 3 years, and now Colorado has that edge. Plus we’re at altitude and B-Rad and Friberg are late scratches, so.. yeah. Out depth is paper thin, with only Flacco capable of making a difference off the bench against a Rapids 18 with Pappa, Hairston and Badji. That said, the Sounders are nothing if not resilient. Forgot Zlatan, it is Nico Lodeiro who has conquered America. The Sounders have been exceeding expectations for months now, and they won’t stop now.

Seattle Sounders Looking To Make History

The Seattle Sounders are in the Western Conference Finals for the 3rd time in 5 years. We seem to enjoy some Rave Green magic in the even years, as 2012 and 2014 join 2016. Even 2010 saw some hoodoo as we fought back from an atrocious start (4-8-3, 15 pts in 15 games) to make the playoffs. If the Sounders are plotted on an upward curve, this is the year we make MLS Cup.

Honestly? First I was just stoked we made the playoffs. With 8th straight playoff appearances, the Sounders are something special. In North American professional sports, where parity always wins, establishing a streak like the Sounders have is terribly, terribly difficult.

The longest active playoffs streak in professional sports is held by the Detroit Red Wings at an insane 25 seasons. Insane. Next is the San Antonito Spurs at 19, the Pittsburgh Penguins at 10, the Atlanta Hawks at 9 (really?!), and the Chicago Blackhawks, L.A. Galaxy and Seattle Sounders at 8. Those 7 teams have 17 championships, combined, during these streaks.

The major takeaways from that list are A) the NHL seems to be less competitive than the other major leagues, B) the Spurs are incredible, C) MLB and the NFL are really parity riddled (the New England Patriots seem to be the most dominant franchise in all of sports, but their current streak is only at 7 years) and D) streaks don’t mean squat if you don’t win. Who would’ve ever guessed the Atlanta Hawks were on that list? Just showing up to the dance doesn’t carve your name in history. You gotta win.

So we’re #hellagreedy. I thought I’d be happy with an early exit as long as we kept our streak going. But then we clinch (on the last day of the season), and I think, “we’ve never not played in the semis, so we’d best beat SKC (thank you Nelson Valdez and the lazy flag of the AR).” Then you want revenge on a vulnerable FC Dallas side that sent us packing last season.

And now, this. We’re playing an underwhelming Colorado side and we are THISCLOSE to our first MLS Cup. Now here’s where the #hellagreedy becomes #hellagrateful. I would be stoked with a mere MLS Cup appearance.

2016 has been a wild and wacky season with another magical turnaround and the unprecedented firing of Sigi. But the postseason has, so far, been pretty par. Everything we’ve done in the playoffs, we’ve done before. Making the Western Conference Finals isn’t new to this club, though facing a team that isn’t the Gals is.

Up until now, 2014 was the best Sounders season ever. We won an Open Cup-Supporters’ Shield Double and still only got as far as we are right now. In fact, the acme of that year was the 32nd to 53rd minute of the second leg of the Conference Finals. With goals by Brad Evans and Dempsey, we’d taken the aggregate lead on the Galaxy 2-1, and we’re less than 40 minutes from MLS Cup. Of course Juninho scores the away goal and we floundered in the twilight of the match.

Now a new hope has been ignited. We are 180 minutes away from making this year the best Sounders year ever. All we have to do is keep playing the brand of soccer coach Schmetzer has established: possess and attack. We do that, we make history.

USMNT Trashed in Costa Rica, #Klinsmannout?

The USMNT got thrashed by Costa Rica 4-nil last night to complete an embarrassing start to World Cup Qualifying.

In the last 16 months, Jurgen Klinsmann has steered the USMNT to an atrocious (and historically bad) 4th place finish in the Gold Cup, a failure to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, a loss in the CONCACAF Cup, back-to-back losses in the Hex (one a historic home loss to Mexico, and the other a ludicrous display). Yes he did manage to sandwich a surprising run to 4th place in the Copa America Centenario this past summer, but that sure looks like a slight hiccup on his runaway dumpster fire of a career.

If we’re lucky, Costa Rica’s Estadio Nacional may very well be Jurgen Klinsmann’s Waterloo (if you’re a regular reader of this site, you’ll know I have favorite nouns and syntactical constructions. Some of my favorites are: “_____________, my favorite whipping boy,” and usually that blank is reserved for Caleb Porter or Klinsmann. But I also like “___________ was ___________’s Waterloo” as in Sporting Park was Sigi’s Waterloo). Seriously Klinsmann’s Waterloo feels about right. For those limited on their 19th Century European history, Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of the First French Empire, lost the Battle of Waterloo thus ending almost two decades of a small man’s psychotic control over Europe. While Jurgen has abdicated Europe for sunny SoCal, he is a small man power tripping with US Soccer for what’s felt like 2 decades.

The wait may finally be over. Though all of our #jurgenout and #fireklinsmann cries have fallen on the deaf ears of US Soccer head Sunil Gulati, even Jurgen’s biggest apologist can’t deny the team has quit on the coach.

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Things Fall Apart: The USMNT and a Shocking Upset

The USMNT plays Costa Rica tonight in San Jose, Costa Rica. And, after the second biggest shock of last week, things are not looking good for the United States.

The US were dramatically upset by Mexico on Friday. Having lost at home, in Columbus, birthplace of dos a cero, to our hated rival (more on that below), the USMNT is in a very early must-win game against the Ticos.

The CONCACAF schedulers started the Hex out with a bang. As I mentioned last post, the US plays the only other 2 winners of the Hex, Mexico and Costa Rica, in this tight window. We already failed our first test and, odds are, we fail tonight as well.

The Stars and Stripes will be hard pressed for a result in Estadio Nacional. We are 0-8-1 in Costa Rica, and the Ticos are on a tear, having won 5 straight international matches. Costa Rica is an organized, established team with a unique identity. They are a gritty, defense-first team and their 5-man backline was the talk of their unlikely World Cup 2014 run. The US, on the other hand, has an identity crisis.

Jurgen Klinsmann is a mess. He is a man banking on his past celebrity and his big name to cover his atrocious soccer mind. The man is a piss poor man-manager and an even worse tactician. He is just another blond blowhard who doesn’t deserve to be in a position of authority.

Jurgen, aside from again selecting an odd 11, put his men in a wacky 3-5-2 formation to start against Mexico. This was a lineup we hadn’t tried in nearly two years and results were as expected. A talented Mexican side attacked and easily found space around the disjointed and uncomfortable Yanks. We held on, despite an injury to Tim Howard, and were lucky to get into the break only down a goal.

Then things clicked. We regrouped to a comfortable shape and Bobby Wood went all medieval. The US enjoyed gorgeous ball movement, found the equalizer and, on a few occasions, very nearly the go-ahead goal. In the 89th minute, we were tied and looking good, until Rafa Marquez buried a set piece for the unlikely 2-1 win.

The result was frustrating, but zooming out it was a travesty. As Brian Straus at ESPN reports:

It not only was the Americans’ first loss in Columbus. It was the first home World Cup qualifying defeat since 2001—the run lasted 30 games—and the first home qualifying setback to Mexico since 1972.

Yes, that’s right. This was our first home WC Qualifying defeat since 2001, back when the shorts were baggy and Landon Donovan had hair (okay, he never had hair). The US had built a fortress and, for 15 years, always got a result at home.

Worse? The US was a bad abysmal soccer nation for decades. We failed to qualify for the World Cup from 1950 until 1990. For 40+ years we couldn’t punch our ticket and yet, from ‘72 on, we always got a result at home against Mexico, the clear-cut power in that era. One more time: for 40+ years we always got a result at home. That is until last night and Jurgen.

We, as US soccer fans, have taken to enjoying the narrative that the United States is an ascendant soccer power. We take heart in our recent string of advancing out of the Group in World Cup play, our, at times impressive, international ranking, and that famous, though musty now, Confederations Cup run in 2009. Even recently we had a very nice showing at the Copa America.

And yet I think we all have to admit: this is a major low point for US Soccer. This. Is. A Low. Point. For. US Soccer. We had just lost at home to Mexico last October in the CONCACAF Cup, and then followed that up with Friday’s shocking heart breaker.

As long as Jurgen is steward of the team, we’ll see boneheaded 18s, poor formations, and much bus-throwing-under. For many reasons, we gotta quit the ascendant America narratives.

Complicated Feelings for USMNT v Mexico

The United States Men’s National Team plays rival Mexico tonight in the opening round of the CONCACAF Hexagonal World Cup Qualifiers.

The Hex, for those less soccer literate, is the final round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying. Six teams (hence Hex) all play each other in home and home series, totalling10 games for each team. The three teams with the highest point totals automatically qualify to represent the region in the following World Cup. The 4th place team advances to an interconference playoff.

The Hex is a year-long competition, lasting from this international break, 11/16, until 10/17. Only the US, Mexico and Costa Rica have won the competition since it’s inception in 1998, and the schedulers (and broadcasters) did the US no favors. We face Mexico and Costa Rica in this window. Starting off strong with a home win vs Mexico is key.

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BOLD PREDICTION:

Home field advantage is very real, as studies have found that the roar of the home crowd objectively influences refs. Sounders fans don’t need to be reminded that in soccer this is especially profound, as the subjectivity of the ref can dramatically change a game (#geigered). One problem for the USMNT as it tries to become a world soccer power has been finding a stadium that feels like home when playing Mexico. Few cities overwhelming support the Stars and Stripes in this rivalry. Columbus, the birthplace of dos a cero and home to today’s match, is one of the few places where Mexican green doesn’t dominate the stands. In Columbus, the USA has never lost to Mexico.

Okay, I cannot act like this is easy to do, writing up this preview in a vacuum of political context. Tonight I will be cheering for America to beat Mexico because, of course, I want to see soccer grow in this country and the USMNT advance to the World Cup. However. In the heart of America, Mexicans will be facing a nation that elected a man who called them rapists. A man who threatens to build a wall, deport families, and jail immigrants. I find it very difficult to support America right now.

The reason the USMNT has a hard time finding homefield within its own borders is because of our inherent heterogeneity. We are a pluralist society. We were born of immigrants and two of our national touchstones, the Statue of Liberty and Liberty Bell, epitomize inclusivity and tolerance. We celebrate a shared history and huge border with Mexico and that interchange of cultures is key to our American identity. Who doesn’t love burritos, piñatas, avocados and California? Some of our greatest cities were founded by Spaniards and stewarded by Mexico: San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Albuquerque etc. What was once Mexico is now America, and vice versa. To imagine the United States could revert to something so white, intolerant and nativist is heartbreaking.

I lived in Los Angeles in early April 2002 when the US beat Mexico in a World Cup gearing-up friendly. Bush was president and the post-9/11 unity most Americans felt was waning. That spring we were already killing civilians in Afghanistan and the WMD rhetoric was just starting to percolate. Worse, Bush had recently declared he wouldn’t follow Geneva Conventions for enemy combatants captured in the fighting. I wasn’t as diehard a soccer supporter then, but I followed the sport. Being in L.A., I had more friends who supported Mexico in that match and, honestly, I felt bad for El Trí. I was ashamed of my country and embarrassed we won.

Things got more complicated that summer. The USMNT followed up that victory with one of the biggest wins in their history at the 2002 World Cup. We beat Mexico, dos-a-cero, in the Knockout Round for our signature win of the modern era. This all happened at the advent of the Bush Doctrine, and it greatly complicated my relationship to US soccer.

Tomorrow in the Heartland, it’s America against Mexico. In the afterbirth of Trump’s America, there’s little hope the feud stays on the pitch.

Seattle Sounders Mean Mugging FC Dallas!!

Damn it feels good to be a Seattle Sounder. Western Conference Finals, here we come!!

Exactly 363 days ago, the same teams played the same game in the same stadium to the same score line. Seattle and Dallas played the second leg of the Western Conference semis in Frisco with Dallas winning 2-1 back on November 8th, 2015. Of course, with a 2-1 Seattle win in the first leg, the series went to extra time and then PKs and Dallas advanced. What a difference a year (and a 3-nil home result) makes.

Even with pulling my best Nostradamus, I was nervous during this match. I was worried we’d be the first team to blow the 3-0 lead. And it got shaky at times in the first half. Whether by design or Dallas, Ozzie and Roldan were collapsing onto our backline repeatedly for the first 45. The Hoops were running amok around the center circle and pushing the pace.

At halftime, as he has so many times under the interim tag, fresh-minted “official” head coach Brian Schmetzer made key adjustments. Ozzie and Roldan pushed their line well into midfield and held that ground. Ozzie was an absolute DESTROYER in the second half, and as our old buddy Mauro’s legs slowly remembered they’re 35 years old, the game was over. Nico had room to play taffy with a Dallas side desperate and ill-shaped, and all we needed was that one moment of brilliance. #thismoment (#thisblognotoffciallyendorsedbysounderfc)

Or rather, less brilliance than grit. Tyrone Mears just outhustled Walker Zimmerman (oh him of the hated mean mug) to Friberg’s overweighted pass. Though Zimmerman should’ve easily collected that ball, Nico, Joevin and Valdez still crashed the box. That’s hustle. That’s follow through. That’s give a damn.

Your Seattle Sounders are in the Western Conference Finals for the third time in 5 years. For the first time they won’t have to face their bugbear, the L.A. Galaxy. And, Ohhhh!, Walker Zimmerman. I’m sure your surname’s forebears will appreciate this: Danke schon für die köstlichen Schadenfreude.

I love how he impotently chases after Mears, and watches the goal before settling on a hands on head resignation. #thatmoment!!

BOLD PREDICTION: Seattle Sounders at FC Dallas

The Seattle Sounders have one eye on the Conference Finals as they play FC Dallas tonight in Frisco. After getting slobberknocked in Seattle, the Hoops are a mere speed bump to the resurgent Sounders. It would almost be easy to pity Dallas, as they lost their star creator in Mauro Diaz in Week 33 and now face near certain elimination as the #1 seed in the playoffs. But Dallas sucks. Remember how brokenhearted you were last year when they equalized, mean-mugged and won on penalty kicks? That sucked. Dallas sucks.

BOLD PREDICTION: Barring an absolute collapse, Seattle’s got this. As a Sounders fan, however, you remember what it feels like to think you have a chance to come back.

L.A. plastered us in Carson, to the familiar tune of 3-nil in the first leg of The 2012 Western Conference Finals. But I still bought tickets and sang in the rain for 2 hours on a dark and stormy night in Sodo. I saw Eddie score early, Then the man, the myth, the legend, Zach Scott, got the second right after halftime. We had almost 40 minutes to get just one more goal and force extra time and … it didn’t happen. Robbie Keane and his “cunning Irish mind” (h/t to Alan Hinton) forced a handball on Johansson and got a PK, which iced it. But up until that moment, I believed.

Dallas will very much believe they can do this. And, they technically can. They are still a very, very good team. The first 20 minutes of this game will be bananas. Dallas will come at us hard and fast, looking, like the 2012 Sounders, for that first goal early. Forced to bunker early, Seattle will hope to just weather that storm. But Schmetzer won’t park the bus, it’s not in his blood, and we all know that a single away goal punches our ticket to the Conference Finals.

Dallas may have scored 3+ goals seven times this season, but they only won with a 3+ GD twice. And Seattle’s only shipped 3+ goals three times, and haven’t since Schmetz took over. Schemtzer still can’t select his best 11 as Ivanschitz and Fernandez didn’t fly to Texas and Torres is a game-time decision, but that won’t matter. Seattle endures and J-Mo Smooth plunges the dagger: 2-1 Dallas. Mean-mug that.

Seattle Sounders Play Best Game Ever

The Seattle Sounders whupped a Treble-seeking FC Dallas side 3-0 Sunday night in Sodo. In doing so, the Sounders played the best game of their existence. Seriously. It’s gotten too late in the week for a traditional game recap, so instead I am going to recap the competition for that superlative, best game in Seattle’s MLS history.

2009: The Sounders inaugural MLS game against the New York Red Bulls. Recently promoted Seattle put a 3-0 whupping on a veteran MLS side. The game wasn’t all that memorable from a tactics standpoint, but the context was incredible. All the excitement for the club finally paid off big, with a big win in front of a big crowd. That day was absolutely magical and we were all so young and innocent.

2010: The US Open Cup Final against Columbus. I know this isn’t the first game that might jump into your head, but the Crew, back-to-back Supporters’ Shield winners and 2008 MLS Cup Champions, were a powerhouse back then. And they were all red-assed about losing Sigi, and looking to make us pay. The Crew went up 1-nil in this match before Sanna Nyassi and the boys in Rave Green came through, 2-1, to clinch back-to-back Open Cups.

2011: No single game sticks out from 2011. Man, we were good that year. 63 points and a +19 goal differential, but… yeah. No Shield and an early and embarrassing playoff exit to RSL, only set up 2012.

2012: The 1-0 nailbiter against RSL in the second leg of the Western Semis. Rimando had been unreal for 170+ minutes until Mario Martinez whipped a ball past him in the 81st minute. That goal was sooo cathartic as Seattle won it’s first playoff series and a berth in the Conference Finals. Loved the celebration too, Mario.

2013: The 2012/2013 CCL quarterfinals against Tigres saw Djimi’s and Yedlin’s wonder blasts, as Seattle became the first MLS side to eliminate a Liga MX team in modern CCL play. And those kits: Hot (love me some Cascadia Shale). And Yedlin’s hair… now that’s historic.

2014: That glorious 4-4 draw at Portland early in the year. We came back from a terrible performance to “win” this draw. The context for this game was heavy. Portland, and a recently hired Caleb Porter, had embarrassed us on our own field in the 2013 playoffs. The two rivals kicked off the game trading body blows. It was 2-2 early before Diego Chara, and the Timbers, laid the wood and took a convincing 4-2 lead, which Portland held until the 86th minute. That’s when Seattle went all medieval and Deuce finished off his hatter and notice was served: Don’t ever get comfortable Portland, you are always little brother.

2015: The Knockout Round victory over the Gals finally got the L.A. monkey off our backs. After a heartbreaking loss to Bruce Arena and Co. in our destined 2014, Seattle made short work of an underwhelming L.A. side. Only a late Keane PK kept the box score respectable for posterity, but all of the Rave Green faithful who watched the game know it was never close.

2016: Putting us in position to avenge 2015’s PK shootout loss (and Walker Zimmerman’s mean mug) to FC Dallas, and finally, FINALLY, being on the other side of a 3-0 first leg, was great. Sunday was sweet and historic and taking the cake right now. But I am soooo hoping for a bigger win on December 10th in the MLS Cup Finals.

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