Stick a gauge in the Seattle Sounders: They are at mid season and some details are coming clear.
The Sounders entered Major League Soccer five years ago and have been contenders for the championship in every season. Each year they tinker and toil mightily to get closer to the finals.
They are a big dog in the MLS. Not yet the baddest, but that is what they are dressing for. They already boast the biggest and baddest rig (stadium) in the league, with 54,000 automatic supporters to fill it. No other team comes even half close to that many seats or that many butts sure to fill them.
At the very end of last season, the Sounders were fingernails away from the finals. More importantly, they were fingernails away from being the best team in the league. They only had to beat the LA Galaxy to get there and, some would argue, they should have beaten LA. But soccer is tricky, and LA is tricky too and the ball hit Sounder defender Adam Johansson just on the fingernail and that was the game.
Seattle had been mightily heroic, but the Galaxy emerged victorious. A shame really since that Sounder team was very good. Better, at many times, than even they seemed to realize. But that Sounder team, as often follows, is gone.
Two defenders are gone, one young brash Colombian forward is gone, a couple of guys left. Such is the way of pro soccer. The 2013 Sounders are new in several places, and it is not at all clear just how good they are or how good they could be.
Last season, Seattle beat Real Salt Lake, a dreaded rival, for the first time in a playoff game in Utah. This year, Real murdered the Sounders twice in Utah. Neither game was as close as the score. Real looked like a team. Seattle looked like a collection of players that might become a team.
In Sounder Stadium all the crowds and noise and hubbub disguise the disunity. Everyone is on hyper-Xbox kinnect and the Sounders are supposed to win at home. But they dropped the opening game of the season to Montreal back in March, let Portland back in for a tie and nearly lost at home to Vancouver. The Sounders are close to being good, but they may be just as close to being ordinary. And they were not built to be ordinary. They like having all those seats filled.
To make things tougher, the Sounders now have legitimate regional rivals. The Portland Timbers and the Vancouver Whitecaps, their younger brother and sort of French step-brother, respectively, are both over their development phases and any associated inferiority and have become true, fire-breathing opponents — younger, faster and, frankly, better. Player by player, the Sounders have a fine lineup, but so far it is more high-priced parts than oiled unit.
The competition among Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, each so different and particular, may indeed set a new and better standard for the MLS. First of all, each HATES losing to the other. Portland, which is practically Belgium to the rest, is now the best team in the league. Vancouver is only a notch below. And the Sounders, the older brother who used to beat them both as if it were the natural order of things, languishes somewhere in the middle.
Just getting through the regional schedule alive will take more grit and focus than rolling around the rest of MLS. Portland and Vancouver do not dread coming here. They would rather win here, just for the manic joy of stuffing all the smug XBox scarfers. It is a wonderful, mutual, earnest dislike, and it makes the three teams so particularly determined that other MLS teams DO dread a Northwest visit.
With its new teams and new cities all wanting to be someone in the bustling North American soccer world, MLS is moving quickly. It will be easy for a team to lose spirit and fall behind. Last year, DC was, like Seattle, a goal away from the finals. This year they are dead last in the rankings.
The Sounders victory over DC United set up last weekend's match with Vancouver, up in BC Place. The Whitecaps had also played on Wednesday, in Kansas City's very hot and partisan-only stadium on the Kansas plains. The game ended in a 1-1 tie, extending the Whitecaps' unbeaten streak to four.
Vancouver, like Portland, has a gourmet stadium downtown. It seats some 22,000 screamers and they all came out for this one. The Whitecaps had never won a Cascadia Cup match in their two years of whacking away at Seattle and Portland. On Saturday night they earned their first victory, a 2-0 win over the Sounders. Vancouver scored very early and very late. In between, the Sounders launched a season high 16 shots on the Vancouver goal, including nine from inside the penalty area. Nothing went in.
It is painful to watch a team shoot so much and not score, no matter how well the goalie is playing. It makes you nervous, fearful that other factors, less obvious ones like luck and fate, are pulling some strings. The Sounders miss their wonderful midfielder Oswaldo Alonso, who is out with injuries. But the team's difficulties are a little deeper than that.
At the moment, the Sounders are on the wrong side of the script. They are the corporate team with the biggest house but little luck and even less humor. They don't seem to be having much fun.
Seattle has a very busy two month schedule ahead. By the end of August, we should know precisely who they are.