TUKWILA, Wash. – In just a few months, the Seattle Sounders went from being one of the biggest flops in Major League Soccer to the opponent everyone was trying to avoid.
Gone are the questions about how a team considered a preseason favorite in the MLS could be so dysfunctional for the first three months of the season. The Sounders begin the playoffs Sunday night against Los Angeles as the hottest team in the league during the second half of the season.
“Anytime you can in the middle of a season totally change your fortune, that is impressive,” veteran Seattle goalkeeper Kasey Keller said Thursday. “That takes a strong mindset through your whole organization. Guys picked it up. We weren’t achieving what we were capable of doing. Ownership and management made some tough decisions, put the pressure on the players to perform and the guys stepped up and made it happen.”
Los Angeles finished with an impressive 59 points and claimed the league’s Supporters Shield for the best regular-season record, but no one has been hotter than the Sounders. The Sounders went 10-2-3 over their final 15 league matches, seven points better than any other playoff team.
The home-and-home aggregate total playoff series starts in Seattle with the second half being played Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. The Galaxy swept the season series, posting a 4-0 rout at Seattle in May that prompted the Sounders’ management to give season-ticket holders a one-game credit on their 2011 season tickets as a “refund” for the poor play.
“We’re a much different team than when we played them in the last two league games,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid said. “The composition of our team is different. I think the way our team plays is a little bit different as well. So from that standpoint I think we are a lot different.”
During a 10-game stretch starting in late April and continuing into early July, the Sounders went just 2-7-1 and earned a mere seven points in the standings. Swedish midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, the Sounders’ first designated player, was disgruntled and looking at options elsewhere as he trained away from his teammates while trying to recover from an ankle injury.
Keller said it’s too simplistic to look at the July 30 trade of Ljungberg to Chicago as the answer to all of Seattle’s problems. It was actually a few weeks earlier, when the drama between Ljungberg and the Sounders started, that Seattle finally turned the corner.
“Sometimes it takes a move to spark something. In this case it happened to be Freddie,” Keller said. “Maybe it’s not necessarily Freddie wasn’t here, but it was somebody else saying, ‘Oh man, if they are willing to make that then I better step this thing up because I may be the next one to go.’ There are a lot of little factors.”
Starting with their 1-1 draw with FC Dallas on July 11, Seattle took off. It went 5-0-2 over its next seven matches to get back into playoff consideration, then closed the season with an impressive run of five wins in six matches.