There are plenty of reasons the Los Angeles Galaxy, and not Seattle, is hosting the MLS Cup this weekend, a game that would be at CenturyLink Field had the Sounders defeated the Galaxy in the Western Conference finals. But what stands out most between the West Coast team still standing and the one looking towards 2013 is the play of the Galaxy's big-money players, particularly forward Robbie Keane, who when added to the mix with David Beckham and Landon Donovan, seemed to be the missing ingredient in the Galaxy's championship formula.
After adding the Irish striker last summer, the Galaxy went on to a championship, and is one home victory over Houston from making it two MLS Cup titles in as many years, no small feat in a league that features one of the least predictable postseasons in American sports.
And the biggest difference maker in the Western Conference Final that L.A. won with a 4-2 aggregate score? That would be Keane, who scored three goals against the Sounders, including the nail-in-the-coffin penalty kick that ended Seattle's comeback hopes.
Now, despite all the success enjoyed by Seattle in its first four MLS seasons, it is time for the Sounders to find its difference maker, or as Sounders coach Sigi Schmid put it, its tweak.
"Sometimes you're never quite sure what that final catalyst is going to be," Schmid said. "If you knew as a coach what that was, then you would just bottle it, market it, sell it. ... But it's not like that. Sometimes it's, 'this formula works,' and now you've got to tweak it here. (The Galaxy) got the right tweak in at the right time and it's worked for them. We've got to find that tweak."
And yes, that "tweak" may very well end up being a multi-million dollar player -- Keane is making $3.4 million this season -- but what's a few million dollars between a Hollywood mogul (Sounders majority owner Joe Roth), a tech millionaire (minority owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer) and a successful actor/comedian/game-show host (minority owner/super fan Drew Carey)?
Here's what four years have shown us about the Sounders: Hanauer, Schmid and technical director Chris Henderson have built a very successful team, found a formula that produces entertaining and winning soccer year after year while capturing a region's attention in a way that no other soccer team has in this country. Not bad, right? But those three, as well as every player who walked off the field a week and a half ago knowing how close they were to a shot at a title, know that it is time to do even more.
This isn't a franchise that needs to reinvent the wheel. It would be foolish to tear this team apart and start over. Heck, Seattle shouldn't won't try to be the Galaxy. But the Sounders do need to take a serious look at bringing in an experienced player who can be a difference maker.
"Just to be clear, we don't want to be L.A," Hanauer said. "We just don't. L.A is a different market."
But even if Seattle isn't trying to emulate the Galaxy, and even if big spending doesn't automatically equate to playoff victories -- just ask the New York Red Bulls, who have spent big like the Galaxy without the postseason success -- there is something to be said for what L.A.'s three designated players have done over the past two seasons. (The salaries of designated players, by the way, count towards the salary cap only up to $350,000.)
While Donovan, Beckham and Keane have helped lead the Galaxy to one title and a shot at a second straight, Seattle for the second year in a row played much of its postseason without midfielder Mauro Rosales because of injuries. Fredy Montero is the franchise's all-time leading scorer, yet he has not scored in four postseasons, and he tellingly was subbed off late in Seattle's final game despite the team needing two goals to save its season. And midfielder Christian Tiffert, a midseason addition, was solid, but never had the impact most would expect from a DP.
Whether or not Seattle replaces any of those designated players with a big-name star remains to be seen, but the good news for fans is that they are certainly considering it. Hanauer said ownership is more willing now than it has ever been to consider opening its checkbook for the right player.
"We still want to run a rational business and a business that's sustainable, but we do think there's an opportunity to maybe push the envelope a little bit," Hanauer said. "... We are willing to and interested in dreaming big and continuing to look at players who can be game-changers for us."
While Schmid stuck up for the play of all of his DPs and said he'd love to have every player back, he admitted he and the front office will consider all options. And Hanauer's assessment of the team's designated players, both current and past, made it clear he won't automatically settle for the status quo.
"I love them all and they've been very good for us, but I think it's fair to say that none of our designated players in the playoff series that we have played in the history of our existence have carried the team on their backs," Hanauer said. "That doesn't mean that any of our DPs couldn't do that or won't do that in the future. ... But certainly we would like to have players, whether they're designated players or not, who can carry a team on their back and get the team over the hump."
It won't take a massive overhaul for the Sounders to get over the hump. Four playoff berths, three U.S. Open Cup titles and record breaking crowds show the people in charge know what they're doing. It is, however, time for Sounders FC to find that tweak.
Even if it costs a few million dollars.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org
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