After an absence of four seasons, the Houston Dynamo are back in the Western Conference.
That’s where they put an end to Seattle Sounders FC’s encouraging first season in Major League Soccer, back in 2009.
Back then MLS expansion teams didn’t have much recent history of success. But the Sounders changed that by storming into the league, taking attendance averages to unprecedented levels and finishing with a 12-7-11 record good for third in the Western Conference — directly behind the Dynamo.
That paired the teams in the playoffs. Their series opened with a scoreless draw in Seattle before shifting to Robertson Stadium on the University of Houston campus. There the teams played another scoreless 90 minutes. However, nine minutes into extra time, Gonzaga alum Brian Ching scored past Seattle goalkeeper Kasey Keller. And while the Sounders swarmed for the equalizer, it never came — and neither did the storybook ending so many Northwest supporters had come to see as the only fitting finish to the season-long party.
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“We had done really well, we had gained our confidence at the beginning of that season,” said Sigi Schmid, Sounders coach then and now. “When we went into that playoff series we felt pretty good about where we were at defensively. I thought we were a pretty strong team that season defensively with Tyrone Marshall and some others in the back. Offensively, we just couldn’t get untracked. But the game in Houston I remember we had some really good looks, some good chances. I remember Freddie Ljungberg had a really good chance, I think (Fredy) Montero had a really good look that we just didn’t score on. It was just frustrating not getting past.”
No one knew it at the time, but the basic outline of that expansion season would continue right up to now, when the Sounders are about to meet the Dynamo again, this time in a regular-season match Saturday at CenturyLink Field. Over their six seasons, Seattle has continued to lead the league in attendance, continued to rank among the top teams each regular season, continued to conclude in playoff frustration.
“Sometimes when you look at a history of a club, if you get past that first series it changes each subsequent year because that confident just grows even greater,” Schmid said. “But what’s good about it was we were in the playoffs, and we’ve been in the playoffs every year since, and we plan on being there again.”
For better and for worse, there has been less consistency on the Houston side. In 2010, they missed the playoffs. In 2011, they shifted to the Eastern Conference to accommodate the league’s expansion into Portland and Vancouver — and represented the conference in back-to-back MLS Cups, losing each to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Last season, Houston fell to 11-17-6 and missed the playoffs. This season they are back in the West, trying to rebuild under Owen Coyle, just the second coach in Dynamo history.
“I’m sure it will be a little bit of a grace period in terms of him figuring out how to get everybody to play that he wants and building the team that he wants for the future,” said Seattle goals leader Clint Dempsey, who faced Coyle teams in England. “He’s a coach who shows that he can coach at the highest level, which he did in the Premier League, and it’s good to have him in this league.”