Sounders buck trend of MLS expansion flops

Oct 22, 2009, 12:19 PM | Updated: Apr 5, 2011, 9:50 am

AP Sports Writer

Peter Vagenas was a 20-year-old “kid” sitting in the seats at the Rose Bowl when the expansion Chicago Fire won the 1998 MLS Cup.

“They definitely were not an expansion team,” Vagenas said.

And neither is his current team, the Seattle Sounders FC.

Both Chicago and Seattle hold the rare distinction of being the only two MLS expansion teams to qualify for the playoffs in their first seasons. The fact that it’s taken 11 years for another expansion team to make the MLS postseason is the surprising part.

But Seattle is in, no matter what the Sounders do in their regular season finale on Saturday night against FC Dallas. They still have a chance of finishing as the top seed in the Western Conference depending on how the final week shakes out.

The time, effort and money the franchise invested in making sure Seattle didn’t look like an expansion team has paid off with a postseason berth and the lingering possibility of Seattle playing for the MLS Cup on its home field next month.

“Now we’re at the point we know anything can happen,” Vagenas said. “We never thought of ourselves as an expansion team. We’re certainly not treated as an expansion team by our fans. We’re certainly not treated as an expansion team by our ownership group.”

Making sure Seattle was not created from the start as “just another franchise” can be largely credited for its success in year one. The owners – Joe Roth, Adrian Hanauer, Paul Allen’s Vulcan corporation and Drew Carey – opened their pocket books and showed a willingness to bring in the right players for the right price.

They persuaded Freddie Ljungberg to come from Europe and be the controller of the midfield for $1.3 million per season. They brought home goalkeeper Kasey Keller, the most capped keeper in U.S. national team history, after more than a decade touring the top leagues in Europe.

They hired MLS Cup-winning coach Sigi Schmid as the ring leader, then made deft moves in free agency and in the expansion draft.

As important was the infrastructure that greeted these players. They have their own training facility with grass and turf fields. Vagenas said one of the little things that doesn’t seem like much, but has resonated with players, is that the team has lunch available every day for the players after training.

“Small things like that you don’t get with too many other franchises across this league,” Vagenas said.

The result? An 11-win team with 44 points headed into the season finale that will sell out every home game this season and set the example for how an MLS franchise should make its debut.

“I think we checked all the boxes,” Schmid said. “You have to make sure you get some quality players from the expansion draft which we did … you have to do well with your foreign signings which I think we have done. … I think you also have to get somebody from the draft and we did that. Then we signed some good free agents. We were able to check off all the boxes. I think some of the other expansion teams haven’t necessarily done that.”

Seattle’s successful first season is even more impressive when compared with the first-year performances of the four most recent expansion franchises.

The return of San Jose in 2008 was the most successful with the Earthquakes earning 33 points. Toronto’s debut in 2007 was hugely popular, but TFC still managed just 25 points.

Both Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA struggled in their first seasons. RSL finished with just 20 points and Chivas had just 18.

“If you look in the past the new franchises are just getting beaten all the time and not doing much good the first couple of seasons and we changed that,” Ljungberg said. “I think all the players and managing staff should be proud.”

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