Sounders' MLS Cup title was eight years in the making

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle's first MLS Cup isn't about one game or even one stretch of a single season. It was about everything that came before that, Richard Farley writes.

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See what you want in these Seattle Sounders. See a team that was MLS’ best from July 31 on, or see one that was 6-12-2 through the season’s first five months. In Saturday’s Seattle, you can see a team that failed to put a shot on target during 120 minutes in Toronto; or, as the record book will see them, you can see these Sounders as Major League Soccer champions.

Their course was an irregular one, too precarious to navigate again, even if they had to. But it was also a course they set with 19 other teams nine months ago, all embarking with the same conceit: No matter what happens between now and the end – no matter the injury, absence, crisis or drama that stands in our ways – we recognize the victor at the end. Whoever raises the trophy on Dec. 10 is the champion, no matter how they travelled their road.

In that sense, it’s apt that MLS, a league that’s been the source of so much debate since its 1996 debut, has produced a champion that embodies so many of those arguments. Should the regular season matter more? Two years ago, as they left the playoffs despite winning the Supporters’ Shield, the Sounders might have said yes. Should there even be playoffs? It’s still debated, even though postseason tournaments are endemic to our landscape.

More broadly, though, are championships built, or are they bought? Either is the right answer, of course, but for a club that’s often been as concerned with the process as the end result, it’s curious how greatness arrived. As much as the Sounders have upped their academy expenditures, it was the departure of one of the franchise’s long-time figureheads, Sigi Schmid, along with the arrival of a franchise-changing talent, Nicolas Lodeiro, that reversed this year’s tide. Though Seattle has never been averse to a big-money buy, this year’s solutions felt different, as if the team was changing course.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so easy to look at this Sounders squad in isolation – as the team that finally broke through – but as Will Parchman noted earlier this week, any short-term view of Seattle shortchanges the story. Ignore the depths the team had plunged to by July, and you miss why this turnaround has been so special. Ignore the rest of this franchise’s history – the seven seasons that preceded this one – and you risk debating whether this triumph was merely about one good run.

What’s less debatable is the quality Seattle has shown in that bigger picture, one that started well before the team’s first MLS kick in 2009. From the moment the Sounders covered their city in scarves to promote their move to the first division, MLS had its first off-field juggernaut. It’s still referred to as the best marketing of an expansion team in sports history.

Those efforts helped produce the league’s biggest fan base, making the Sounders darlings of international media looking to document MLS’ ascent, but it was also matched by success on the field. As we were reminded while this year’s team clawed into the postseason, Seattle has never missed the MLS playoffs and never finishing lower than fourth in the Western Conference. Only the LA Galaxy has been more successful during Seattle’s MLS existence, and if it wasn’t for the presence of Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and David Beckham further south, Seattle would have likely claimed MLS Cup before now.

Coming into Saturday, the club had won almost everything else. A Supporters’ Shield in 2014. U.S. Open Cups in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2014. The team is even in an exclusive group of MLS teams to have knocked Mexican opposition out of CONCACAF Champions League, advancing to the semifinals at UNAL Tigres’ expense in the spring of 2013. Aside from Champions League, the only honor Seattle had failed to claim was the one it snared Saturday. Now, the trophy case is complete.

Some will still remember Saturday’s triumph as the perfect example of getting hot at the right time, or what happens when soccer has no better solution than penalty-kick shootouts.

But as much as Saturday's result was about a 120-minute deadlock and the difference between a few players’ spot kicks, it was also about the Sounders being good enough to put their name in the playoff lottery over, and over, and over again. They were good enough to lose out on another perverse tiebreaker two years ago, ending in the conference finals on the wrong end of away goals. They were on the wrong end in 2012, too, when a would-be fourth-straight Open Cup went to Sporting after penalty kicks. On Saturday, one of soccer’s insanities finally broke in Seattle’s favor.

In that sense, it may be right that this title, like so many in MLS’ history, will be subject to the same old debates about regular seasons, playoffs and penalty kicks. If those debates loomed large before tonight’s kickoff, these 120 minutes won’t solve them. But we can debate those finer points without trampling on what Seattle has done.

This team was close to dead at the end of July, but leveraging all the lessons it has learned, Seattle managed to strike the right balance. But Seattle isn’t in position to land Nicolas Lodeiro without the building blocks of the last eight seasons. And the hard choices Garth Lagerwey enacted throughout the season – whether it was waiting for Lodeiro, or parting ways with Schmid – don’t happen unless majority owner Adrian Hanauer, two years ago, moves aside and gives Lagerwey control. The opportunity to do so doesn’t happen without Seattle’s success making it an attractive spot to an executive like Lagerwey, and that success doesn’t happen without the base the franchise built with its remarkable start off the field.

Ultimately, Seattle’s title shouldn’t be seen exclusively through the lens of 2016. It shouldn’t been defined by 120 minutes, one season’s playoffs, or even this remarkable last four months. This title was eight years in the making. It was the end of a chapter in a franchise’s dream start.

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Richard Farley is the West Coast Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.