Targeted Allocation: When did Seattle become just another MLS team?

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The year since its U.S. Open Cup meltdown has seen the Sounders perform like an average MLS team, at best. Graham Parker wonders why Seattle has lost its luster.

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Over the weekend, a tweet from Dave Clark of the blog Sounder at Heart caught my eye:

Sounder at Heart is one of the best team blogs out there, and I’m not going to presume to unpick the implications of those bare stats in the type of detail you’ll find there. But what was striking, in the forced parity of MLS, which often means a kind of “forced reset” in the offseason, was the fact that this account of a full 34-game season felt like it told a pretty meaningful story of Seattle’s recent fortunes.

The "Red Card Wedding" is a reference to last year's U.S. Open Cup game against Portland Timbers at Starfire Stadium, where the loss of the team’s unbeaten record at that stadium turned out to be the least remarkable aspect of a game that has become part of Sounders demonic folklore. In what ended as a 3-1 defeat to its bitterest rivals, Seattle had three players sent off (including Clint Dempsey, whose subsequent ban for ripping up the referee’s notebook has effectively ruled him out of this year’s competition, and probably beyond) and also lost Obafemi Martins to long-term injury. The Sounders' season never recovered.

Going into the game, Martins and Dempsey were the most feared attacking tandem in the league. They looked to be building momentum to help the Sounders improve on the Supporters' Shield and Open Cup wind of 2014. It’s perhaps that that’s most remarkable about the Red Card Wedding - the fortunes of the team going into and out of the loss. 

Defeat as an aberration

The nature of forced parity in MLS means on any given weekend you’ll see a result that would appear freakish in another league, but it's a nature which MLS sides have learned to deal with almost as a cost of doing business. And in Seattle’s case, parity or no parity, there’s always been a predisposed sense among organization and fans alike, that any big defeat is an aberration. It’s at the heart of the project. The Sounders are a big club in MLS circles, in part because they behave like a big club. Seattle cultivates a sense of expectation, if not downright entitlement.

Every year, Seattle goes into the U.S. Open Cup with an expectation that it is going to commit to winning or retaining a trophy it considers its property. The team's mood going into the MLS Cup playoffs is subtly different. The air of expectation is more or less there each year, but serial failure at the last means there is little sense of entitlement. Fredy Montero, for example, might have been trusted as a goalscorer extraordinaire during the regular season, but there was always a sense that he’d be defying the odds to turn into a productive member of a playoff team.

But with Martins and Dempsey, there was a palpable sense, from the summer of 2014 onward, that this was a duo more likely to deliver a title than not. In that sense, the 2014 series against the Galaxy, where LA game-managed its way coolly past the Sounders in the Western Conference final, may have been more frustrating than the capitulation against Portland the year before. 2014 was meant to be the Sounders' year. And Martins and Dempsey were going to score the goals to ensure it.

But Seattle won the Shield, while LA, as it does, won the Cup. Still, a first ever Supporters' Shield, along with an Open Cup, marked 2014 as a good year for the Sounders, and there was plenty of optimism going into 2015, especially with Dempsey and Martins giving and going their way through defenses for fun.

A slight caveat to this narrative is that Seattle has rarely been a remorselessly dominant side, like, say, the LA team that won Shield and Cup in 2011, and who made a habit of getting its nose in front in games, then staying there. Seattle have tended to be more a team which, on its day, could sweep past opposition, overwhelming them with attack after attack, especially at home. On those days, Seattle would look irresistible, with the twin spearheads of Dempsey and Martins impossible to deal with, and the supporting players punishing any defense who put too much emphasis on trying to stop that duo. 

When it was misfiring -- when fullbacks were erratic, or Ossie Alonso was injured or off his game, or teams stayed organized and picked off an over-committed Seattle on the counter — the Sounders could look vulnerable and drop results. 

So it's not entirely true that Seattle was sweeping all before it in the spring of 2015 - they'd had a few losses interspersed among their big wins. But having just disposed of the rising Dallas side 3-0 before Red Card Wedding, there was no reason to think that the Sounders were about to endure a hellish summer, one where they would take only four points from 10 games. Nor was there any reason to think that, by the time they met Dallas again in the playoffs, they would look like such a spent force (and yes, they were within seconds of advancing, but not in any style you'd have pegged as "Seattle").

Losing the luster

Of course, the loss of Dempsey and Martins hurt Seattle, as it would any team. And Seattle has had its slumps before; the initial period bedding Dempsey into the team had hardly been a smooth transition, for example. But for perhaps the first time in memory as an MLS side, a regular season's worth of games has seen something far more troubling happen to Seattle. Amid the 12-17-5 run, the Sounders have lost a certain aura - not of invincibility, as we've discussed, but of setting an agenda for the league. 

There have been moments where the ambition of the Sounders and their ownership seemed to be index-linked to the ambitions of the league, or even vice versa; right now, that's just not the case. Seattle's reaction to the offseason departure of Martins to China felt curiously passive, at a moment where the profile of new expansion owners is tending towards the monied and bullish. 

Historically, Seattle has made great virtue of appearing to shape rather than inherit their destiny, but this last year has seen result after result appear to fall through them without a clear sense of where the team is going. 

Even the offseason felt curiously listless, particularly in the wake of rival Portland winning MLS Cup. From the outside, Martins' departure felt like one of those moments, now common in the league, where a Designated Player who was never a natural fit slips quietly away - the manner of departure you associate with another club trying to keep up with Seattle or LA. That doesn't reflect the actual quality of Martins' contribution, just the strangely indolent way his departure was handled.

In the past few weeks there's been talk of big signings in the summer, and perhaps the Sounders will indeed pull a Dempsey/Martins-size rabbit out of the hat, but they'll be doing so while chasing a season, not while adding the possible last piece of the jigsaw for success. Persuading Jordan Morris to sign was a big positive, and he's handled the enforced acceleration of his apprenticeship well, but it's asking a lot that he be that player in his first professional year.  

And in the season-equivalent Seattle has just experienced, the team's asked a lot of a loyal fanbase who may feel it's demonstrated each week why it deserves to follow more than just another team. This transfer window will be an interesting one.

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Graham Parker's column, Targeted Allocation, appears weekly on FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.