TUKWILA – What should you do if you’re a Sounders fan watching your team take a shellacking in March, April and May?
What do you do if the spring results are as gloomy as this year’s spring skies?
The answer is simple, really: You load up on summer tickets to Lumen Field knowing that the squad is going to shoot up the standings like a Cape Canaveral rocket.
Take 2016, for instance, when the Sounders won just six of their first 21 MLS games, three of which were ties. They ended up in fourth place in the Western Conference standings before winning their first MLS Cup in Toronto.
Or 2017, when the Sounders won five of their first 18 games, tying six times in that span. They ended up second in the standings before losing to Toronto in the MLS Cup final.
And then there was 2018, when the Sounders won four of their first 15 games, tying three times and falling to second to last in the standings. They again catapulted to second in the West before losing a heartbreaker to the Timbers in the conference semifinals.
In other words, there was no reason to panic this season when Seattle started 2022 4-1-6.
“We get pissed,” said Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, “but we don’t panic.”
During the aforementioned three-year stretch, the Sounders were one of the most astonishing teams in American professional sports. Teeming with talent, they would find a way to bungle the first half of the season as if they were substituting players subbing in for a group of starters on strike. Then in the second half, they would look like they were ready for 90 minutes with FC Barcelona.
To be fair, this hasn’t been the case over the past three seasons. They had a dominant start in 2019 and went on to win MLS Cup No. 2. They were similarly superior in the first part of 2020 before losing in the MLS Cup final. But Schmetzer smiled while discussing last season, when Seattle set a league record by going unbeaten in its first 13 games, only to flame out in the first round of the playoffs. It was the inverse of all the success he enjoyed when he first took over as coach in 2016.
Right now, the Sounders are following the blueprint from those seasons. They are 6-2-6 after enjoying two wins and a draw in their past three outings. Granted, there is a Saturn-sized excuse for the slow start in MLS play this year – the Sounders were busy winning the CONCACAF Champions League title, which might be the most prestigious championship they’ve captured.
Even so, they seem more accustomed to surging after struggling than any club in MLS.
“It’s not something we plan,” Sounders attacker Jordan Morris said. “But I think we’re built for moments like the end of the season and playoffs and in tournaments like you see. We start to pick it up a little bit. ”
More than a little bit. It’s hard to argue that the Sounders haven’t played the best stretch of soccer in the league over the previous six seasons. Six playoff appearances, four MLS Cup appearances and two MLS championships make that case convincingly. And given the CCL title they won over the Mexico City-based Pumas in May, a third MLS Cup might make 2022 go down as the best season a team from this league has ever produced.
But are they really “built” for the playoffs? It’s not as if Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey went out of his way to select players who would idle early and accelerate late. Perhaps, though – after all the trials and undulation veterans such as Morris, Cristian Roldan and Stefan Frei have weathered over the past several seasons – they are more prepared for a second-half sprint than any of the other 27 teams in MLS.
“‘I think’ built ‘might be a good word to describe it, but I think it’s more experienced enough for those big moments because we’ve been through them,” Schmetzer said. “Just the history of this club… we kind of know.”
The Sounders’ leading scorer, Raul Ruidiaz, will be out because of a hamstring injury Saturday when the Sounders host Sporting Kansas City. But the team is relatively healthy overall and has midfielder Nico Lodeiro – arguably its best player – whose surgically repaired right knee limited him to just four starts last season.
Everything is in place for another deep run. Early shortcomings by the Sounders should never get their fans down – if anything, it should get them pumped.