By John Boyle Herald Writer
TUKWILA — For the Seattle Sounders, the challenge is clear. Seattle has 180 minutes to get the playoff monkey off its back; 180 minutes to shed the label of playoff underachiever; 180 minutes, starting tonight, to get a step closer to being a championship team.
And let’s be clear, what the Sounders have accomplished since joining Major League Soccer has been remarkable. In addition to smashing league attendance record year after year, they also are playing in their fourth postseason in as many seasons, have won three U.S. Open Cups and have some success in CONCACAF Champions League play.
However, starting tonight with a home game against Real Salt Lake, Seattle knows it needs to fill the one gaping hole on its resume.
Three playoff appearances, three quick exits. That’s what has to end this year for the Sounders. Seattle has failed to advance past its first playoff opponent in three tries, and everyone, from players to coach Sigi Schmid to general manager and minority owner Adrian Hanauer, they all know that needs to change.
“We want to make sure we get beyond the first round, because we haven’t accomplished that,” Schmid said. “Players are motivated and focused on that task at hand, but on the same token, we’re also proud of what we’ve accomplished and proud of the fact that we’re in the playoffs again.”
For those who need a refresher on the MLS playoff format, Seattle, the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, plays second-seeded Real Salt Lake at home tonight, then next Thursday in Salt Lake City. The winner is decided by aggregate goals over the course of both games, and if the teams are tied after 180 minutes, extra time will be played with a shootout following if necessary. So in other words, think of tonight’s game as the first half of a game with a really, really long halftime show.
So, what’s different this time around? Why is this team any better prepare to avoid an early exit than its predecessors?
Well, for starters this group is more experienced. The core group of players who have been with this team from the beginning — Osvaldo Alonso, Fredy Montero, Steve Zakuani, Leo Gonzalez, Brad Evans, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Zach Scott — have gone from being an inexperienced but talented group learning to play together to a veteran, battle-tested nucleus of the team.
“Most of us who are here have been though some tough games in the playoffs,” said defender Jeff Parke, who was selected by Seattle in the 2008 expansion draft but didn’t join the team until 2010. “A couple of us have won championships, and our coach has led a lot of teams to big wins and to championships, so the group is definitely a mature group that has been through this.”
And the big-game experience on Seattle’s roster is in no way limited to the Sounders who have been here since 2009.
Mauro Rosales, who joined the team last season but missed the playoffs with a knee injury, won a gold medal for Argentina and has played in huge games for Dutch club Ajax and Argentina’s River Plate. Austrian goalkeeper Michael Gspurning has European experience at the club and international level, and has been up to the unenviable task of replacing Kasey Keller.
Christian Tiffert, who signed this summer, played in Germany’s top league, and Mario Martinez, another midseason signing, joined Seattle after helping Honduras make a surprise run in the Olympic quarterfinals.
And finally, Eddie Johnson, who is unlikely to play today because of a hamstring injury, but who should be back for next week’s game in Salt Lake, has a resume that includes World Cup appearances for the U.S. and time in the English Premier League.
“Individually everyone’s more experienced,” said Zakuani, who missed last year’s postseason while recovering from a broken leg. “You think about some of the guys who have been here from the beginning, this is now their fourth time going through this. Some guys who have been around the league, it’s been multiple years, so I think guys are going to be ready.
“Guys are going to be ready, and we’re a very confident team.”
Players also admit they will be motivated by past playoff failures. Having lost to Houston in 2009, the L.A. Galaxy in 2010 and then Salt Lake last year, Seattle is ready to finally make another team go home disappointed after one round.
“It was very painful to lose those games,” Zakuani said. “So that pain is going to carry the organization through.”
Players know there is danger in living in the past, in focusing on past regrets rather than focusing on the task at hand, which is playing a very talented Salt Lake squad, but if a little anger about the way things have gone in the past, that’s one more edge Sounders FC is happy to use.
“This is a new season, new playoffs,” Parke said. “But maybe let that bitterness and that feeling be in the back of your mind. We don’t want to feel that way again, so it’s something that motivates you that way.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com.