Seattle Sounders burst in through the saloon doors in March, chewing lazily on tobacco as they stood proud in front of the regulars and declared their intention to take Major League Soccer by storm.
The old boys weren’t pleased, but had to respect the Sounders’ testicular fortitude. Columbus Crew scowled from a bar stool with MLS Cup perched on the counter. LA Galaxy stopped playing the piano and DC United, slowly but purposefully, strode towards the entrance and challenged them to prove their credentials.
Fast-forward to the middle of September and Seattle Sounders have just beaten United twice in ten days. Saturday’s MLS game was crucial to Seattle’s playoff challenge, but September 2nd’s 2-1 victory at RFK Stadium added some serious sparkle to the club’s inaugural season as a Major League Soccer outfit, the Sounders lifting their first silverware after beating DC in the US Open Cup Final.
So with another good result under their belts against DC on Saturday, can the Sounders push on and add a second trophy to their MLS-era collection?
Centre of attention
Seattle Sounders are Major League Soccer’s newest club, but also one of its most exciting and worthy of attention. The first few weeks of the season were bathed in rave green as the Sounders – the offspring of the city’s NASL and USL-1 teams – went from strength to strength on the field.
Owned by film mogul Joe Roth, comedian Drew Carey, Microsoft’s Paul Allen and general manager Adrian Hanauer, the Sounders have benefited from the experience and pedigree of coach Sigi Schmid, and also from his ability to build a very good team from scratch, superbly playing within the rules of MLS to pick up players like Nate Jaqua and Peter Vagenas to supplement some good quality youngsters and a big-name designated player.
But it’s off the pitch that Seattle have made the biggest impact. Consistently packing out Qwest Field’s 32,000 soccer capacity, Sounders Nation has continued the city’s reputation as a one of passionate and noisy football fans. Having proven themselves worthy over a season, the supporters put the exclamation point on their profile with an impressive showing in a friendly with Chelsea, a match which anywhere else in MLS would likely have been infested with American Blues.
As a collective, Sounders fans have a charming cockiness, a brash abrasiveness which simultaneously impresses and irritates supporters of other teams. Forthcoming MLS expansion into Vancouver and Portland will highlight the less appreciative end of that spectrum, bringing Seattle fans back into contact with their bitter rivals from the Pacific Northwest, a soccerist triad which will become a fantastic marketing asset for the league. But a rivalry is also brewing with DC United following three heated games between the two, including an Open Cup final before which Adrian Hanauer’s war of words with the United marketing team merely served to raise the temperature.
Debut season success
Whatever happens from this point in, Seattle’s first season as a Major League Soccer side can only be seen as a success on the pitch as well as off it. Likely to qualify for the playoffs, the team has confirmed 2009’s appearance on the Sounders honours list early by winning the US Open Cup. The aforementioned final, at RFK Stadium against DC, was a dramatic affair which will be immortalised in Sounders history by a moment of madness from United’s former Portland goalkeeper Josh Wicks. But more importantly, Seattle’s trophy cabinet is now occupied, and a lot sooner than even the biggest optimist would have predicted.
In the league, the Sounders’ results have been positive. A three-game winning streak against New York, Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC gave Seattle a blistering start but a run of draws through April and May was punctuated by the occasional defeat and put paid to any idea that they were the best team in the division. Houston Dynamo and LA Galaxy, both very good sides whose fortunes will affect Seattle’s, have both been beaten. Points which should have been safe have been dropped, but unexpected points have been banked. They certainly haven’t disappointed.
Montero leads the way
Schmid’s squad has done him proud this season and highlights his mastery of the weird and wonderful workings of the roster and transfer systems of Major League Soccer. There are some big names who will be familiar to fans of European football, but they’re enabled to operate by a sprinkling of talented youngsters and a squad of solid professionals like Peter Vagenas and James Riley (plus the odd Sounders player from USL) with a lot of experience between them. It’s a potent blend, mixing pace and fearlessness with the cool heads – in theory, at least – of the elder statesmen.
There is nothing more to be said about Kasey Keller. The Sounders goalkeeper is 40 in November, but is still one of the league’s outstanding goalkeepers. Returning to the north west after playing in England, Spain and Germany, the former Timbers stopper has been as reliable as ever. With a team ahead of him playing its first season together, Keller’s coolness and ever-impressive shot-stopping ability has provided a defensive rock for the Sounders and no doubt given confidence to his defenders.
But the biggest asset in Seattle this season has been the attacking unit of the side. Former Dynamo striker Nate Jaqua has brushed aside some “personal issues” to become the Sounders’ spearhead up front, using his strength to hold up the ball, usually while moving forwards, and bring the players around him into the game. Those players include former Arsenal winger Freddie Ljungberg, Seattle’s designated player, and first-year pro Steve Zakuani, a lightning quick attacker who grew up in London and played at Arsenal until the age of 14. Zakuani has a knack of creating havoc for defences and has shown that he can grab some goals for himself too.
Completing the strike force is Colombian forward Fredy Montero. Currently in his first season, the 22-year-old has, like Jaqua, been able to deal with a police investigation and put in some remarkable performances. He’s started 22 MLS games for the Sounders this year, scoring a noteworthy 11 goals so far. We shouldn’t be surprised – he really made a name for himself at Deportivo Cali before being picked up by MLS and could easily have ended up in Europe, his likely destination in the not-too-distant future. In terms of quality, he’s right up there with the best in North America.
It’s difficult to see Seattle failing to make the playoffs from this point, but I think it’s unlikely they’ll go all the way. There are teams which will almost certainly qualify for the post-season and have either experience of negotiating the playoffs or more momentum than Seattle, who are – despite a hugely impressive first campaign – not in the best of form as the end of the season approaches.