2016 season in review: The year the Sounders made history
It’s not much of a stretch to say that things were dire around Seattle Sounders FC for a good five months of the 2016 season. Even after the team started their excellent MLS Cup run, many didn’t believe they could truly make such a remarkable comeback. But now that the Sounders have won their first title since joining the MLS, it’s worth taking a look back at exactly how their historic season unfolded.
After losing Obafemi Martins just days before the beginning of the season, the Sounders tried to rely on rookie Jordan Morris from Day 1. The opening match at CenturyLink Field could not have gone worse. Seattle lost 1-0 to Sporting KC, a match in which Oniel Fisher saw red for a questionable tackle. Foolish miscues (goalkeeping error against Real Salt Lake and two penalties given up to Vancouver) caused the team to lose its next two, on track for one of the worst starts in Seattle’s short MLS history.
Record at end of month: 0-3-0
Following their horrendous first month of the season, things almost started to look up for the Sounders in April. Their first game of the month turned out to be their first win of the season thanks to Clint Dempsey’s goal against Montreal Impact on April 3. Continuing the trend of firsts that month, the Sounders also earned their first draw of 2016 in their next match, 1-1 at Houston in a game that saw defender Chad Marshall dramatically score his team’s lone goal in injury time. Wins over the Philadelphia Union and Columbus Crew bookended a loss to Colorado (at the time the most in-form team in the league) to make April a surprisingly productive month for Seattle. Another bonus was finally seeing Morris score his first goal for the club, which he built upon by scoring in the three matches after that to set a record for consecutive matches with a goal by an MLS rookie.
Record at end of month: 3-4-1
But all good things must come to an end, right? Not long after April somewhat stabilized the club, May came roaring in for the Sounders – and not in a good way. Despite starting strong with a 2-0 win over Western Conference rival San Jose, the Sounders lost their next three. The top teams in the league – and especially in the West – were starting to make themselves known at this time, and the Sounders had to face two of the teams that battled all season long for the Supporters’ Shield: FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids. A heartbreaking loss at New England may have been the low point in a rather low month.
Record at end of month: 4-7-1
Copa America limited the number of games played in June, but it was probably for the best. The Sounders capped off an East Coast trip with a 2-0 win over DC United, but the rest of the month didn’t go so well. Losing Dempsey to US duty didn’t help, and the Sounders lost successive home matches against the New York clubs. The second, a 2-0 loss to NYCFC, is probably best remembered for Frank Lampard’s handball in the lead-up to his goal.
Record at end of month: 5-9-1
How much can a single month affect the entirety of a season? It’s a little hard to say, for a variety of reasons. The two months prior to July were quite dire for the Seattle Sounders, dropping them to ninth place in the West as they appeared set to be on the outside of the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time since they joined the league. Even a strange 5-0 win over league leader FC Dallas at home didn’t rescue Seattle from the depths of the standings. The results in July mattered, but in truth, I think they were just the straw that broke the camel’s back for longtime head coach Sigi Schmid. This is why July mattered so much in the grand scheme of the 2016 season. Things didn’t really turn around, results-wise, until later. But the decision by Sounders leadership to part ways with the only coach the team had known in its MLS era has had positive repercussions that still continue today. After the Sounders lost 3-0 away to Sporting KC – a match in which they had just one shot – Schmid was out and his assistant Brian Schmetzer was in. Conveniently enough, a Uruguayan playmaker by the name of Nicolas Lodeiro also made his way to Seattle in July, another event that changed the course of this season. Schmetzer’s first match was a 1-1 draw at home to the Los Angeles Galaxy; the Sounders’ lone goal was scored by Cristian Roldan, but Lodeiro – in his first match for Seattle – was the creative force behind it.
Record at end of month: 6-12-3
The beginning of the end for the Sounders. They had a new spring in their steps and a fresh new outlook on life after the changes made in July. Seattle went all the way to Orlando and crushed the home side 3-1 courtesy of a Dempsey hat-trick. Lodeiro continued to be the source of creative energy that the team had lacked in the first half of the season. A packed month of fixtures saw a huge 3-1 win over the Portland Timbers at home, as well as an unfortunate 4-2 loss to their Cascadia rivals in Portland. Despite the solid results in August, it was unfortunately mired by the news that Dempsey would be out for undetermined amount of time, diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. The veteran forward would not play again for the Sounders in 2016. Despite the unfortunate news and single loss in August, the team was on the up and up, and things were looking much brighter for the 2016 season.
Record at end of month: 9-13-4
The Sounders went unbeaten in September, with a draw in San Jose the only unfortunate result in the entire month. Tight 1-0 wins over the Vancouver Whitecaps and Chicago Fire were nervy, but the Sounders were finding new ways to win thanks to Schmetzer’s coaching and Lodeiro’s creativity. The most important result, one that announced the team’s playoff intentions and their newfound quality in front of goal, was the Sounders’ epic 4-2 win over the Galaxy in L.A. Morris broke the American rookie scoring record by notching two goals over one of the better teams in the league, earning Seattle the three points that pushed it to the precipice of the playoffs for the first time all year.
Record at end of month: 12-13-5
For the first time since Schmetzer took over, the Sounders started to hit a couple proverbial roadblocks. A tense 2-1 win over the Whitecaps in Vancouver kicked off the month well and showed off Schmetzer’s ability to adapt and adjust his tactics on the fly, but a frustrating scoreless draw with Houston afterwards meant that the Sounders couldn’t complete their march into the playoff spots just yet. A 2-1 defeat in Dallas was just the second regular-season loss under Schmetzer, and even though it was frustrating for the team, it was understandable that it might lose to the eventual Supporters’ Shield winners. All of this meant that it took until the very last day of the regular season for the Sounders to cement a place in the playoffs, but they made it happen. Goals from Alvaro “Flaco” Fernandez, who returned to the team at midseason, and Cristian Roldan gave Seattle a 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake at CenturyLink Field, not only confirming its spot above the line, but giving the Sounders a fourth-place finish and home-field advantage going into the knockout round. October was a packed month, as it also saw the first two matches of the Sounders’ playoff run. The first, a home knockout round matchup with Sporting KC, almost ruined the 2016 narrative completely. KC had the Sounders’ number all season, and for nearly 90 minutes, it had it again. But the unlikeliest hero, Nelson Valdez, came up huge for Seattle with just a couple minutes left in the match. Sporting’s coach and players were unhappy with the officiating in this match, but the Sounders did what they had to do and won 1-0 to progress to the conference semifinals just three days later. The first leg was an epic affair, with the Sounders pounding an unprepared FC Dallas squad 3-0 in Seattle to take a historic lead to Dallas.
Final regular season record: 14-14-6
Playoff record: 2-0-0
FC Dallas fought the Sounders bravely in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinals, but the Sounders’ 3-0 aggregate lead proved to be too much. Seattle was further buoyed by Lodeiro’s goal – his third of the series – in the second half, giving the Sounders a crucial away goal and putting the match just too far from Dallas’ grasp. The home side did win 2-1 on the night, but the Sounders’ 4-2 aggregate lead sent them to the conference finals. Even though FC Dallas were the Supporters’ Shield winners, the squad that it had at its disposal against the Sounders was somewhat depleted. The Sounders’ opponents in the Western Conference finals, the Colorado Rapids, were mostly at full health and ready to go. Their striker Shkelzhen Gashi was a little banged up going into the first leg, but so was Morris for Seattle. Despite going down early to the Rapids, the Sounders bounced back at CenturyLink to win the first leg 2-1 through goals from – who else? – Morris and Lodeiro. The second leg in Colorado was an even more defensive affair, but the Sounders broke down the stingiest defense in the entire conference when Morris scored early in the second half to seal the win and send the Sounders to their first ever MLS Cup final.
Playoff record: 5-1-0
Only one match happened in December, but it was a pretty big one. Seattle traveled to Toronto – which hosted thanks to its regular season win record – for the final match, and it was a cold one. The Sounders looked helpless on offense for the first time in months, and didn’t register a single shot on goal in both regulation time and extra time. They withstood a terrifying Toronto attack that registered seven shots on goal, though, as none found the net. An epic Stefan Frei save kept the Sounders in the match during extra time, eventually sending it to a penalty kick shootout. As the most nerve-wracking moment in professional sports slowly dragged on, the Sounders eventually prevailed after Justin Morrow hit the crossbar for Toronto and Roman Torres blasted his winning penalty into the back of the net.
End of season honors
• MLS Cup champions
• MLS Western Conference champions
• MLS Rookie of the Year: Jordan Morris
• MLS Newcomer of the Year: Nicolas Lodeiro
Overall, this was quite the season. It’s cliche to call it a roller coaster, but it’s hard not to have that image in your head when you think about the 2016 Sounders season. They were absolutely horrendous for quite a while, and I never thought I’d be making a trip to Toronto to see them win the MLS Cup. People have speculated on the differences made by Schmetzer over Sigi Schmid, and it’s not a comparison I necessarily enjoy making. Both coaches are very good coaches. But Schmetzer inspired his team, and I think it’s an inspiration that comes from his deep connection to the city and its soccer culture.
Sigi Schmid won’t be forgotten, of course. He helped shape the team for years and has many trophies to show for it. But it seems that he was out of ideas in Seattle, and the team needed someone who could inspire a team that had lost all inspiration. Schmetzer turned the team from a bunch of guys kicking a ball around and hoping to make something happen to a Cup-winning team that found ways to win, no matter the situation. The Sounders battled all the way to Toronto, and then battled for over 120 minutes in below-freezing conditions.
They returned with the club’s first MLS Cup. And I gotta say, they really deserved it.
Spenser Davis also covers the Sounders for Sounder at Heart.