Tonight the Seattle Sounders will play their last regular season home match of an already successful 2011 season. I will be in attendance at what is being billed as a fan and Kasey Keller appreciation event, especially given that the Sounders have locked up the second seed in the West come playoff time with RSL's draw last night against Colorado. This certainly isn't the last home match overall, as the Sounders are guaranteed to host at least one home playoff match in the conference semifinals, and perhaps a second via the conference finals if Los Angeles stumbles in their semifinal. However, all of tonight's pageantry should be viewed by supporters as a chance to appreciate this season as any of the next home events could be tinged with a loss and the uncertainty of an offseason.
From a personnel standpoint, this has been the best season of the three the club has played in MLS. The club certainly overachieved its first few years, finding good young players in Freddy Montero, Steve Zakuani, and Mike Fucito. They combined them with solid, established lower-division players like Osvaldo Alonso, Roger Levesque, and others. The experienced leadership of Kasey Keller led the way. What wasn't present was a cohesive team focus and work ethic. Tempermental DP's in Freddie Ljungberg and Blaise N'Kufo seemed to never fit in with MLS' style of play nor the Sounders, leading to less-than-optimal team balance and esprit d'corps. Alvaro Fernandez, the third DP picked up after World Cup 2010, struggled to find his groove in the half season he played in 2010. Overall, the team impressed the Seattle faithful its first two seasons, but was not one someone would look at and consider championship material.
Throughout the 2011 season, that perception has certainly changed. When Steve Zakuani went down to a horrific leg injury in the Sounders seventh match, every supporter must have been wondering how the team would do the rest of the season (especially offensively). No one would have predicted they would finish as the league leader in goals and second overall in goal differential. Fernandez would begin to earn his DP money, sitting at the top of the Castrol Index as of this writing. Freddy Montero, after a slow start, would end up leading the team in PP90 with 16 goals and 10 assists as of this writing. The man who spurred all of this offense, Maura Rosales, was a bargain basement buy at the beginning of the season and now leads the team in assists. Throw in Osvaldo Alonso's tenacious, tackling defense and Kasey Keller's outstanding play in goal and this team has a feel about it that it didn't have the first two seasons. It is a team that feels like it can win an MLS Cup.
As good as the players have been, the results have continued to improve as well. The Sounders won their third straight US Open Cup this season, something that hadn't been done in four decades in the competition. Their first US Open Cup championship allowed them to compete in the 2010-11 CONCACAF Champions League tournament, where the Sounders underimpressed with a 1-0-5 record for a total of 3 points. The second US Open Cup allowed them to return to the CCL tournament this season, where they have done much better by compiling a 3-1-1 record and qualification for the knockout rounds next year. In league play, the Sounders have improved greatly as well in 2011. See the table below for key summary statistics. Where the Sounders have excelled this season is in greatly improving both their offense and defense over previous seasons.
Perhaps the most impressive element of the last year has been the continued fan support. The club has broken its own MLS attendance records the last two seasons. This season has seen an average attendance of 36,932, a 2.10% increase over 2010. Tonight's match will see 62,000+ packed into Century Link field, representing one of the largest crowds in the history of MLS. The Sounders have set the US Open Cup attendance record two years running. Let's put this all in perspective - the Sounders total attendance in 27 matches this year outdrew all but two of the teams in the NHL (41 games), all but two of the teams in the NBA (41 games), and would put them in the upper half of attendance in the EPL, Serie A, and the Bundesliga. There is no quenching the thirst of the fandom in Seattle.
It is a match like tonight's where the entirety of the season must be appreciated. The mass of people must be taken in. The quality of the team to be appreciated. Reflection on an already successful season must be made. Yes, it can get better than this. An MLS Cup and the rare chance at a CCL Cup are still a possibility - very real ones with how well the club has been playing this year. But to condition success this season upon winning those cups would be greedy at this point. By any measure, the club has greatly improved this year and is building a record of which it can be proud. Enjoy tonight, whether you are at the CLink or watching on Fox Soccer. Very few people living in America get to enjoy this game and a club so much.
NOW C'MON YOU SOUNDERS! BEAT SAN JOSE!