By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — When the final whistle had sounded, putting an end to Seattle Sounders FC’s season, Osvaldo Alonso and Eddie Johnson confronted referee Mark Geiger as frustration boiled over.
Given the controversial nature of a few calls in the game, it was an understandable though unnecessary, heat-of-the-moment reaction, and it was also a fitting final moment of frustration for a team that for the second straight season proved to be undeniably talented yet maddeningly inconsistent in the MLS postseason.
For the second year in a row, Seattle spotted an opponent a 3-0 lead in the first leg of a two-game, aggregate-goal playoff series, and for the second year in a row, Sounders FC responded with a thrilling, all-out effort in the second game that fell just short.
In front of 44,575 who braved a miserable, rainy November evening at CenturyLink Field, Sounders FC outscored the L.A. Galaxy 2-1 Sunday, but lost the Western Conference final to the defending champs 4-2 on the strength of the Galaxy’s big win in L.A. last week.
So now what?
What is next for a team that fell short of its ultimate goal of a championship, but did manage to win a playoff series for the first time in franchise history? What tough decisions must be made in the offseason for Sounders FC to go from being a team good enough to beat anybody on any given day, but inconsistent enough to suffer playoff blowouts two years in a row, to being a team consistent enough to not put itself in such precarious situations?
“We obviously took another step in playoffs, and I feel like we’re becoming more mature as an organization and as a team,” said Sounders FC general manager and minority owner Adrian Hanauer. “But obviously tonight’s disappointing, and we’ll spend the next couple of days doing a bit of an autopsy and figure out what we do from there.”
Even in a year when Sounders FC went a step further in the playoffs for the first time, making it to a conference semifinal, that postseason autopsy could result in tougher offseason decisions than this young franchise has faced in previous years.
Johnson, who got things going for Seattle with a 12th minute goal, and who was arguably the team’s best player in his first season in Seattle, talked about wanting to be back next season, and Sounders FC would no doubt love to keep him, but doing so could very well require a raise, making him a designated player. Seattle already has its limit of three DPs, all of them who have been disappointing for various reasons. Fredy Montero enjoyed another solid season, but for the fourth straight year went without a playoff goal. It seemed telling that Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid, needing two goals to save the season, removed Montero, the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, in the 73rd minute. Christian Tiffert, a midseason addition, was solid this year, but never as impactful as one might want a DP to be, and Mauro Rosales, while one of the team’s most talented players, can’t seem to stay healthy through the postseason.
None of that is to say that Tiffert, Montero or Rosales is responsible for Seattle losing this series, but watching Galaxy forward Robbie Keane score three goals in the series, including the penalty kick that put the nail in the coffin Sunday night, it was hard not to wonder if Seattle needs to find a star player like Keane who can be difference maker in big games.
Yet despite a disappointing finish, this was hardly a downer of a season for Sounders FC, and the future is far from bleak. Assuming Johnson is back, Seattle has a top-notch forward and plenty of other playmakers, including Steve Zakuani, who in 81 impressive minutes Sunday showed he is ready to be an impact player in 2013 after slowly getting back to form following a career-threatening injury in 2011. This team has championship-caliber talent, and will almost certainly be a playoff team again, but this series, from the ugly loss in L.A. to the impressive response Sunday night, is a reminder that there is still work to be done.
“I felt like the better team lost today, but that’s our fault for not playing good in the first game,” said defender Jeff Parke. “We can’t look at anything else but ourselves, because if we go out of that (first) game with maybe a 1-0 loss, we’re still playing. We’ve got to clean up our mistakes and learn from the things we did wrong in the first leg and make it a full series. It’s something we’re going to have to look at and talk about.
There were no doubt some questionable calls in this game, but it was laying an egg in L.A. that doomed Seattle, not the officials. And yes, the MLS playoffs are a crapshoot — the MLS Cup is between the No. 4 seed in the West, L.A. and Houston, the five seed in the East — but that doesn’t excuse two massive letdown games in as many postseasons. Seattle put itself in position where it needed something close to a miracle Sunday night. It got a very good performance, which wasn’t enough.
“Everybody stepped their game up, and we had to,” Zakuani said. “We gave everything we had against L.A., it’s just unfortunate we dug such a big hole, because you can’t do that against a quality team.”
A quality team. Seattle has shown it is just that over the four years of its existence. This offseason could be what determines whether Sounders FC goes from being a quality team to championship one.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.