SEATTLE – Sounders defender Chad Marshall remembers the first time he tried to repeat as a champion.
Marshall was a back-line anchor for the Columbus Crew squad that captured the 2008 MLS Cup. A year later, the Crew won a Supporters Shield as the league’s best regular-season team and entered the playoffs seeking another title.
But it wasn’t to be. The Crew was eliminated in a conference semifinal series by Real Salt Lake.
“It was difficult,” Marshall said of that season. “Every game was a battle, and you feel it come this time of the year. That August and September grind, getting through the summer and the heat.”
The exhaustion from being the team to beat is just one reason it’s so difficult for any professional sports title-holder to repeat. Free agency, health, offseason distractions and plain old luck swinging another way can ruin a champion’s best-laid plans.
The Sounders won their first MLS Cup last season. This year, riding a club-record 11-game unbeaten streak entering Sunday night’s home game against the Los Angeles Galaxy, they sit just two points out of first place in the Western Conference, having played two fewer matches than Portland. But even they seemed to hit a bit of an August wall with lackluster 1-1 results their last two matches.
One thing’s for certain: The dynasties of yesteryear – the Boston Celtics winning eight NBA titles in a row from 1959-66 or the Montreal Canadiens capturing five consecutive Stanley Cups in the 1950s and even the New York Yankees winning three straight World Series from 1998-2000 – just don’t happen like they used to.
Nowadays, two titles in a row generates dynasty talk, something only the Pittsburgh Penguins, Miami Heat and Galaxy have managed this decade among the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS.
Harder Now To Repeat
Some feel luck played a role in the Seahawks failing to repeat as Super Bowl champs in February 2015. Russell Wilson threw an interception at the goal line with seconds to go against New England, rather than handing the ball off to Marshawn Lynch and possibly securing that second consecutive title.
And the Golden State Warriors ran out of gas in the 2016 NBA Finals, blowing a 3-1 series lead and dropping Game 7 to Cleveland on their home court. The Warriors had needed a minor miracle to defeat Oklahoma City in the previous playoff round and looked spent compared to how they played when they won the title the previous year. They have added another since.
No Seattle-based pro team has won consecutive titles. The NBA’s Sonics went to consecutive finals in the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons, first losing and then winning the championship against the Washington Bullets.
This year’s Sounders, like Marshall’s team from 2009 in Columbus, needed a few months to find their stride.
“It’s the obvious target on the back,” Marshall said. “You get everyone’s best every week because you’re that measuring stick that everyone pits themselves against. Everyone wants to win it this year, so if they can beat last year’s champion they know they’re trending the right way. So, it’s tough. Every game’s a battle.”
Sounders midfielder Gustav Svensson won a Swedish league championship with IFK Goteborg in 2007, but then finished third overall – Sweden doesn’t use a playoff system – in 2008 and failed to repeat.
“It’s always difficult,” he said. “You’re not fighting from under. You’re fighting from the top.”
Svensson said IFK Goteborg is such a big-name team in Sweden that every match already had extra hype added even before the title.
“It’s always difficult to play for (Goteborg) because it’s always a big game when you play, especially when you win the year before,” he said. “I haven’t played here (in Seattle) before, but you can feel that a lot of teams put a lot of effort into trying to beat us because we won last year.”
No living in the pastSvensson said another danger is the tendency to look back on the previous championship season as a measuring stick. Doing that week to week, he said, can become mentally draining.
“You go, ‘Last year, we did this, we won that game.’ You compare seasons.”
Svensson said the Sounders try not to do that but added that the 2016 campaign “does come up” in locker-room talk.
And when teams dwell on past championship success, there’s a tendency to get complacent. Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer throughout training camp urged players to forget 2016, only to see them nearly blown off the field in Houston the first half of their regular-season opener.
One good thing was the Sounders’ offseason was so short – literally a few weeks of rest for some players – that there wasn’t much time to get drunk off their success. In other sports, a championship one year can become like a season-long hangover the next if offseason celebrations go to players’ heads.
But the short offseason for the MLS Cup teams does lend itself to injuries. The Sounders had plenty, starting with Brad Evans in training camp and Jordan Morris throughout March. The team’s back line wasn’t stable until late July.
Small wonder that the 2015 MLS Cup teams – Portland and Columbus – failed to make the playoffs in their follow-up campaigns.
There’s also roster turnover, which in MLS can be more frequent because of shorter contracts and the loss of star players to foreign leagues.
Free Agency A Factor
The decline of true dynasties in any sport usually coincides with player movement and the onset of free agency.
Baseball in the 1970s had three teams win back-to-back titles as free agency was slowly growing. But since the 1970s, only the 1992-93 Blue Jays and 1998-2000 Yankees have repeated as champs.
There were four back-to-back Super Bowl winners the first 14 years of the big game through the 1979 season, but just the same number of repeat champs over the next 37 years. No NFL team has repeated as Super Bowl champion since the Patriots did it 13 years ago.
The NHL had back-to-back four-peats from the Canadiens and New York Islanders from 1975-76 through 1982-83, then an Edmonton Oilers dynasty that won four Cups in five years through the 1987-88 season. But only two franchises – the Penguins of the early 1990s and the past two years, and the late-1990s Detroit Red Wings – have won even consecutive titles during the 30 years since.
Basketball leans heavier toward dynasties, with smaller rosters making it easier to keep championship cores. But even that slowed. The NBA from 1986-87 through 2001-02 had repeat champions – including a trio of three-peaters – in all but one year. In 15 years since, only the Los Angeles Lakers and Heat have won consecutive titles, and nobody has three-peated since the Lakers from 1999-2000 through 2001-02.
MLS has seen only two champions repeat – the Houston Dynamo in 2006 and 2007 and the Galaxy in 2011 and 2012 – since D.C. United did it the first two years of the league’s existence in 1996 and 1997.
A different teamThe Sounders are trying to repeat with 13 players gone from last year.
“We’ve had to change more than normally a team would after winning a title,” Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey said of early struggles. “So I think it’s only now we’re starting to believe in ourselves as a group and believe we can overcome adversity and win every game we go out and play, and that the group is good enough to go out and repeat.”
Lagerwey was the GM for Real Salt Lake in 2009 when it beat Marshall’s team and pulled off other upsets to win the MLS Cup. “We were underdogs in every single game, so we were viewed as a fluke.”
The next year, he added, the team was more confident and “the best team that we ever had.” RSL led the league in scoring and set a record for the fewest goals allowed, but still lost its opening-round quarterfinal series against FC Dallas on aggregate goals.
Showing once again that sheer luck can trump all planning. As the Seahawks learned so agonizingly a few Super Bowls ago and even the Sounders did in winning their title match last year without registering an official shot on goal.
It takes talent, confidence, health and just the right amount of luck to win even one title, let alone two in a row. And it’s an uphill battle for any defending champ that doesn’t have all those elements going for it.