Gauging Cascadia's woes: How worried should Sounders, Timbers, Whitecaps be?
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Maybe it’s the attendance numbers, or the broader fan culture that tends to define the region, but when people think of soccer in the Pacific Northwest, they don’t think of success, even if they probably should. The Portland Timbers, after all, are MLS’ current champions, while the Seattle Sounders have claimed five major honors since joining the league in 2009. Perhaps that’s not LA Galaxy-level dominance, but coming off a season in which all three Cascadian teams made the MLS Cup playoffs – with at least two of the region’s three teams making the postseason every year since 2012 – Cascadia’s on-field success may be overshadowed by the fanaticism off of it.
This season’s standings, however, offer a small rebuttal. In a league where only four teams from each 10-team conference miss the playoffs, Cascadia’s trio occupy three of the West’s ‘below the line’ spots. The Vancouver Whitecaps, even after Wednesday’s draw against Sporting KC, are still two points behind Peter Vermes’ team for sixth. Portland, having played one fewer game (eight), is two points behind its Canadian rival, while the Seattle Sounders, with only seven games played thus far, is averaging a point per game through the season’s first two months.
Together, the clubs form a sliding scale of paranoia, the intensity of which depends on how much you weigh spring results. If you’re apt to ignore the standings until summer, you’re probably offended some version of “playoffs” has already appeared four times in this text. It is, after all, only April 28.
On the other hand, Cascadia’s teams are between 20 and 26 percent of the way through their seasons. That’s not too much of the season to overcome, but it is way too much to ignore.
So how seriously should we take the struggles of Cascadia’s most-prominent team, the Seattle Sounders? To answer that, we need to get at why we dwell on early results, because (spoiler alert) recognizing that context pretty much dictates how worried we should be about Seattle.
Overvaluing early results
The main reason we dig deep on early results seems to be our lack of alternatives. We can prod ourselves about sample size until the shock runs out, but when we see Philadelphia’s early success, Real Salt Lake’s rebound or Colorado’s surprise start, it’s difficult to look at 2015 and say (convincingly, at least), “last year’s results are still more important.”
It just doesn’t feel right. Even the most astute analysts aware of how variance manifests over small numbers of games can’t ignore the realities of professional sports. Teams change a lot each offseason. New leadership, different personnel or just plain maturation can reinforce the narratives that begin with new results. Every team goes into the winter with huge incentives to improve, so when a new season’s results begin to pile up, it’s natural to judge how teams adjusted.
As C.J. Sapong scores goals, Joao Plata finds space in penalty areas and Jermaine Jones debuts with Man of the Match performances, we convince ourselves 2016 represents something new - something 2015 can’t explain. Add in a little recency bias, and caveats about sample sizes lose out. Unwilling to let things play out, we start casting judgments, even if, if we’re forced to admit it, we know it’s a colossally dumb thing to do.
Paranoia high? Seattle Sounders
Apply that logic to Seattle, and it’s impossible to take 2016 too seriously. Head coach Sigi Schmid’s presence since day one, as well as the stability of a core that’s featured Brad Evans, Osvaldo Alonso and Zach Scott since the franchise’s first game in 2009, implores us to see the bigger picture. If there’s one team in Major League Soccer that demands our patience, this is it. With veterans like Clint Dempsey, Chad Marshall, Tyrone Mears and Stefan Frei in the equation, seven games looks insignificant. That may be 20 percent of Seattle’s season, but it’s three, maybe four percent of the data we should be using to judge this squad.
If there’s one team in Major League Soccer that demands our patience, this is it.
“I think there was a stretch last season where we went 10 games without winning a game,” Scott said, alluding to a June-to-August span were the Sounders won once in 11 games. “That was a bit of a low point in my career …
“[It’s] still the beginning of the season. We still have holes in our roster, some guys being injured … I don’t think anybody’s looking too hard at [this start] or being too worried …”
Evans, a natural midfielder expected to complete his transition to central defense, has missed 30 percent of Seattle’s minutes. Erik Friberg, projected to start near Osvaldo Alonso in the team’s new three-man midfield, has been limited to 58 minutes. While Seattle hasn’t necessarily suffered more injuries than other MLS teams, their absences do inform a key question: How good is this team, really? Based on this season’s sample, we just don’t know, nor is there a need to answer that question in April.
There’s also the team’s history, to which Scott alluded. Seattle doesn’t just ebb and flow. Streaky is part of this team’s DNA. At the end of the 2013 season, Seattle won only one of its last 10 games, a stretch that extended into the postseason. That same season began with two wins in the team’s first 11 games and also featured a mid-summer stretch where Seattle won eight of nine, losing only once in 12 games.
Going back to the Sounders’ first MLS campaign, the team has habitually had stretches of eight, nine games that seem anomalous; yet every season, the Sounders still make the postseason. Along the way, some fans become convinced they’ll win the Supporters’ Shield (which they did in 2014); others insist the team’s finally destined to miss the postseason.
“You can also look at the way we started last year, and we were on fire,” Stefan Frei explained, highlighting the duality of the Sounders. After five years in Toronto, where Frei estimates he had “seven coaches and close to 200 teammates,” the Swiss-born keeper knows about downturns.
“If you’ve been part of these seasons, you always know there is going to be a tough spell, no matter what team you’re on. There is going to be a time where you have to just stay patient, keep working your butt off, and keep believing in yourself. Because at some point, things will turn.”
Are those the words of a veteran player, in the moment, trying to stay positive in the face of adversity? Perhaps, but even that should inform our view of the Sounders. Whether people outside Seattle think they should panic, the Sounders aren’t worried. They haven’t just been through this before, they’ve been through worse, and each time, they’ve weathered the storm.
“It’s very easy for an outsider who doesn’t spend hours and hours together on the training field, like we do, and hours and hours together on airplanes, and hours in hotels to [miss] what the group is like,” Scott, a member of the Sounders since 2002, explains. “It’s a really good group. Even though there has been some turnover in the past, there is that veteran core. Even the young guys who’ve come in are all willing and able to make a difference for this team. There isn’t a group of guys that are segregated from another.
It’s very easy for an outsider who doesn’t spend hours and hours together on the training field, like we do, and hours and hours together on airplanes, and hours in hotels to [miss] what the group is like.”
“I think everybody is of the mindset that once you sign that contract to be a part of the Sounders, we’re in it for the long haul. We’re in it to fight, we’re in it to win trophies together. That’s just what the Sounders do. We win trophies.”
Through seven games, there’s little reason to think the Sounders can’t still compete for trophies. Just look at last season. A strong fall won MLS Cup for Portland. The Red Bulls claimed the Supporters’ Shield despite winning one game between April 26 and June 5. A bad Philadelphia Union team was penalty kicks away from claiming U.S. Open Cup. Arguably none of those teams were as talented as this Sounders squad.
“We believe in ourselves,” Frei says when asked about the team’s mood. “We have skill in the locker room, but we have to make sure to demand that skill shines through.”
And right now, Seattle is still as skilled as any team in Major League Soccer.