By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — Following their final home game, Sounders FC players celebrated with their fans after beating FC Dallas in convincing fashion.
It was an important day, paying tribute to the best fans in Major League Soccer, who for the fourth straight year smashed the league attendance record, and it was an important victory for playoff seeding, but despite the festive mood on a chilly October evening, to a man Sounders FC players and coaches know this can’t be the final shining moment of the 2012 season.
On this Sunday night, they celebrated knowing they still haven’t accomplished anything.
OK, OK, so that’s a little harsh to say Seattle hasn’t accomplished anything. Sounders FC has qualified for the playoffs for the fourth time in as many years of existence, and by averaging 43,144 fans this season, Seattle easily broke the record it set in 2011, which broke the record it set in 2010, which… well, you get the point.
But unlike past years when it won three straight U.S. Open Cups, Sounders FC has nothing else to hang its hat on this year if it wants the season to be remembered for more than a strong regular season and record-setting crowds. After three years of early exits from the postseason, it is time for Sounders FC do more when the playoffs begin next month.
Sunday’s 3-1 victory over Dallas assured Sounders FC of a No. 2 or 3 seed in the playoffs and another meeting with Real Salt Lake, the team that bounced Seattle from the playoffs last season. The seeding will be sorted out next weekend, but regardless of how that shakes out, everyone in rave green knows another first-round exit from the playoffs won’t do.
“This year we want to make a ton of noise in the MLS playoffs,” Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid told the crowd after the game.
The playoff urgency would have been there regardless of what happened Sunday, but it became a little more magnified when another potential trophy, the Cascadia Cup, went to Portland after the Timbers beat Vancouver to claim Northwest supremacy for the year. So with no Open Cup, no Cascadia Cup, no other consolation prize in 2012, it is time for Seattle to make a serious run at the most important reward in Major League Soccer.
“That’s important for everybody, from the top down, fans especially,” midfielder Brad Evans said of the Cascadia Cup. “So if we can’t give them that, we’ve got to give them something else.”
The good news for Sounders FC is that on the same day it saw the Cascadia Cup handed off to its most-hated rival, Seattle also showed it is more prepared than ever to contend for the MLS Cup.
On an evening when Dallas was fighting for its postseason life, Sounders FC methodically dismantled a hungry playoff contender. If not for a few spectacular saves by Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman, Seattle could have easily hung five goals on Dallas.
It was a clinic.
“I think this team is good enough that if we play up to our potential and we worry about ourselves, we have a chance to beat anybody in this league,” said assistant coach Brian Schmetzer, who was serving as head coach Sunday while Schmid served a one-game suspension.
For much of the evening, we witnessed just why this group of Sounders is better prepared than any of the previous three to make some noise in the playoffs. The value of Eddie Johnson’s addition to the team is hard to overstate, particularly as he and fellow forward Fredy Montero continue to build chemistry with every passing week. Early in the season, people wondered if the two prolific scorers could coexist, but on Sunday Johnson was unselfishly threading a pinpoint pass to Montero in the box, setting up a goal for Mauro Rosales. And it isn’t just Johnson who makes this team more playoff ready. The veteran experience of Christian Tiffert makes an already strong midfield even better, and the defense that was shaky at times last season looks rock solid heading into the playoffs, even if its season-best 369-minute scoreless streak came to an end in the first half.
“We’re hungry more than anything,” said Evans, who doubled his season total with two goals Sunday.” … We can compete with anybody, and we’ve shown that throughout the year with only seven losses. We’re confident, but we’re not over confident. We play with our backs against the wall and we’ve got a chip on our shoulder. We’re not overconfident, but I know the players we have and I’m confident in what we can do.”
Evans is part of the core group of players remaining from the 2009 expansion team that was bounced from the playoffs by Houston. A year later, it was L.A. unceremoniously dumping Seattle from the playoffs, and last year Salt Lake sent Sounders FC home from the party early.
“Three years before we were new in this league,” said Montero. “We didn’t know anything about the playoffs. Now we have three times gone to the playoffs and unfortunately we couldn’t advance. This year, we are focused on what we need to do.”
Even as they celebrated Sunday, Sounders FC players knew they still have a lot more to accomplish, but in dominating Dallas for the better part of 90 minutes, they showed they are more prepared than ever to finally make a run at a title.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.