The Sounders evolved from a nascent soccer franchise into a cultural phenomenon in such a short period that there can be no question about their degree of success.
So they really don’t need to win a Major League Soccer title for validation. But it feels as if it’s time.
If there’s extra pressure in that regard, they can blame it on the MLS champion Portland Timbers, the annoying younger kid from down the street who somehow jumped the queue and took something they’d been after for a while.
The Sounders will continue to enjoy the extraordinary fan fervor, with an unparalleled stadium experience. But this is the eighth season, and coach Sigi Schmid and his team have not yet captured a league title, nor made it to the MLS Finals.
They’ve won impressive nonleague competitions, been regularly in conference contention, and were ranked the most valuable franchise in the MLS.
In those ways, the Sounders have attained the goal they established when they first took the field in 2009: Consistency.
“What we’ve always wanted to be is a very consistent franchise, from Day One,” Schmid said after a rainy practice Friday at the team’s Starfire headquarters in Tukwila. “I think we’ve been that.”
Certainly, but …?
“But we want to get that ultimate prize,” he continued.
Last season’s promising start in that direction stalled with a midsummer nightmare stretch of one win in nine games ( fueled by injuries and national-team commitments), and ended with elimination in the conference semifinals at Dallas.
As the Sounders open the 2016 season on Sunday at CenturyLink (4 p.m.) against Sporting Kansas City, the theme is the attempt at greening up a graying roster.
GM Garth Lagerway announced his intention to create an infusion of youth and athleticism. But nine of the 11 expected starters for the game against K.C. are 29 or older.
“The idea is when you bring in a bunch of young guys, you don’t want to throw them into the fire where it’s too stressful and they can’t succeed,” Lagerway said. “The idea was to get younger now at some of the depth positions, and let those guys kind of bubble up. So that as some of those starters get older and do break down a little over time, they’ll be ready to step in.”
Having recently lost veteran forward Obafemi Martins to China, “you can have all the plans in the world, but the fact is, you have to adjust,” Lagerway said.
The upside to losing their top goal scorer, the general manager said, is the chance to “rebalance our team from a salary-cap perspective … and to give more minutes to Jordan Morris and some of our young attackers.”
Morris, a Mercer Island native, was named the top Division I soccer player in the country for Stanford last season. The questions from the start, now, will be the degree to which he can replace Martins, and meld with Clint Dempsey, and thereby represent the incremental rebuilding of the Sounders.
“We’ve got a good spectrum now,” veteran Brad Evans said. “I think last year we were definitely a bit older and more savvy. Now, we’ve got a couple runners on the team that can do the work on the other side of it. So let the guys who have the veteran savvy play the mind games on the field and let the other guys do the leg work. Having the right mix of that, you hope, pushes us in the right direction.”
Evans explained the importance of that blend, the chemistry required to find the perfect mix of levelheaded guys with quiet guys and those “who have a little more bite.” He likes the early looks of this roster.
The most crucial part, though, is how they all respond from the late disappointment of last season. And that’s not as much about age or experience as it is about attitude.
“You have to react one way,” Evans said. “And that’s to come out on Sunday and bust your ass on the field.”