Seattle Sounders fans have just experienced yet another same-old, same-old season. A decent run through the regular season coupled with a shot at the Lamar Hunt Trophy, followed by a quick exit from the MLS Cup Playoffs. And still no Supporter’s Shield.
The Sounders started off the 2013 season in something less than lacklustre fashion, managing two points from the first five league matches.
But something clicked, the team sprang to life, and the squad went on a tear through every team it played.
At one point the Sounders even put a 4-0 shellacking on the San Jose Earthquakes, last season’s Supporter’s Shield winners.
But the season took a nosedive shortly thereafter, concluding with a run of form that saw them barely squeak into the postseason. And maybe they would have been better off not even making it to the playoffs as hated rivals, Portland, hastily ushered them out.
For an MLS squad with a very enviable roster, this type of collapse seems beyond imagination. There are at least two factors that played into this scenario; the arrival of Clint Dempsey, and Sigi Schmid.
There is no doubt that Clint Dempsey’s midseason entry into the squad threw a wrench into Sigi’s planning.
How exactly does one squeeze Eddie Johnson, Obafemi Martins, Clint Dempsey, Lamar Neagle, Mauro Rosales and Brad Evans on the pitch at one time?
And that’s only looking at Deuce’s arrival from a tactical perspective; the entrance of such a high caliber player must have unsettled the locker room. To that point, even General Manager Adrian Hanauer admitted that: “Clint is a strong personality. He’s going to be an absolutely fantastic personality for this team, but when you inject a strong personality in the middle of the season, it changes the dynamic a little bit.”
Yet, this cannot and does not explain the depth of the collapse suffered by the Sounders.
As a result, we must look to Sigi Schmid. The head coach of the Sounders has been successful in the NCAA and in the MLS.
Yet when it comes to winning the MLS Cup with the Sounders, success has remained ephemeral. This is unfortunate, because even the Sounders’ brass is heavily targeting the MLS Cup as a necessity.
But is Sigi the man to lead Sounders faithful to the promised land?
The Sounders’ management believes so, and has cited his successful record. In a statement released on November 14, 2013, majority owner Joe Roth explained: “While we are not happy with the way we finished, Sigi’s resume and accomplishments speak for themselves. We have been to the playoffs five-straight years, one of just three teams to have done that.
"Once you make the tournament you give yourself a chance to win the MLS Cup. Sigi has won two MLS Cups and it won’t be long before he does it here in Seattle. We continue to strive for excellence and we will do everything we can and give him all the resources possible to make that a reality.”
In other words, the executives are keeping faith with Sigi, and believe he is the right person to do the job.
When we look at what Sigi has not done, we see that there is definite room for improvement. It may be the case that Sigi doesn’t have what it takes to get his squad an MLS Cup. His last championship came in 2008 with the Columbus Crew.
The league has change significantly, with a marked uptick in player quality. But it has also changed tactically, with a more diverse set of instructions being thrown out with every match.
When we assess what Sigi has done since taking over the Sounders, he consistently throws the same team out on the pitch with roughly the same formation and tactics.
Of course, individual instructions probably differ match to match. But we see the same pseudo-counterattacking mindset each match.
This worked before other teams started making the adjustments it would take to surpass the squad on the field. First Real Salt Lake introduced a means by which it could gum up the works. Now Portland has the Sounders’ number. Closing out the season with a seven game skid suggests that more teams have caught on.
Beyond stale tactics, there is the issue of personnel. Because Joe Roth stated that the club will give Sigi all the resources he needs to get the silverware, one would think that implies retaining the best talent.
On the same day that the Sounders announced they were keeping Schmid, however, news broke that the club was shopping Eddie Johnson around. This cannot be a coincidence.
We know that Sigi and Johnson have butted heads on multiple occasions. We also know that Sigi has a track record of clashing with particularly strong personalities (Freddy Ljungberg, and Alexi Lalas come to mind).
And maybe a my-way-or-the-highway approach can work, but Sigi isn’t Sir Alex Ferguson and the Sounders are not Manchester United. Simply buying another star caliber player, particularly one who can be so instrumental in ginning up a win when the team is otherwise playing poorly is no mean feat for an MLS squad.
Given the stale tactics and personnel issues, it makes sense that the Sounders struggled to close out the 2013 season on a high note. But the question we should be asking is how much more time will Sounders execs give Sigi to bring home the big one?
And are there better managers out there who are capable of taking one of the league’s most dangerous teams and giving them an unbreakable mentality and cutting edge?
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