SEATTLE – Eleven straight playoff qualifications. Four U.S. Open Cup titles. The 2014 Supporters’ Shield, three trips to the MLS Cup final in four years, and the 2016 triumph that caps it all.
By now many readers will know the numbers that reflect the Seattle Sounders’ consistency and quality across their decade in Major League Soccer. But what makes the Rave Green such a perennial force? After conversations with players, coach Brian Schmetzer, GM/president of soccer Garth Lagerwey and VP of soccer/sporting director Chris Henderson, here are a few factors to consider.
Mind the spine
The Sounders have not hesitated to spend since their 2009 arrival in MLS. But one of the keys to maintaining their position among the league’s elite even amid flashy new arrivals like Atlanta United and LAFC is the thought and intention behind the big checks.
Seattle have cultivated an exceptional spine to their squad, building their XI around all-everything No. 10 Nicolas Lodeiro, backing him up in the engine room with an international-caliber holding mid in the form of Gustav Svensson and the wisely-drafted Cristian Roldan.
Behind them, South Korea international center back Kim Kee-Hee has proved a revelation since arriving on a Targeted Allocation Money deal in February, starting 30 league games and easing the pain of icon Chad Marshall’s midseason retirement. And the crowning addition arrived in the form of Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz in the summer window.
“What I think has been cool about how we’ve worked as a group is, we make each other better,” said Lagerwey on Friday. “When we signed Lodeiro, we wanted him be a force magnifier, that was the term we used, to make everybody around him better, to be able to play with the ball, at least some of the time. And then when we added Ruidiaz, we really felt like that was the capstone, that was the final piece to complete the puzzle – to say, ‘OK, how do we really get the best out of Lodeiro? Somebody to stick home the goals for the chances he creates.’ And I think that pairing together has been really, really elemental to what we want to do.”
Attitude first, skillset after
Most of the aforementioned key players were intensely evaluated across multiple metrics over many months before being acquired, and in general, the Sounders’ scouting processes have given them a higher rate of success on major signings than most of their MLS peers. A top factor: Personality matters, a lot.
“I try and put attitude over talent. Obviously technique [matters] and we’ll look at players at a certain band, certain level of technique, but the attitude of the player is so important, and how he will fit in to our locker room,” Henderson, the point person for most of that scouting work, told MLSsoccer.com on Friday.
“I think having that connection with Brian [Schmetzer] and the coaching staff and the players to know what the pulse of the team is like and which players will fit into our locker room. Because when players come here they feel like it’s a winning culture, they feel support from the club and I think that’s important for getting them acclimated. But being able to go to their market, watch the players play, meet with them, talk to them, get an idea of who they are as people, I think that’s paid off in the long run of players we’ve brought in. Nobody’s going to get it right every time, but I think we’ve been pretty good with the players we’ve brought in and they’ve impacted our team.”
Seattle love, Seattle stability
Schmetzer, Henderson, club owner and longtime executive Adrian Hanauer are just three of many staff members who hail from the region, are also longtime fans of the club and have worked there for years.
“We have a lot of really hard-working, humble people who try and look at details. It doesn’t feel like we’re doing anything different from the years we get knocked out [of the playoffs], we’re trying to be consistent,” said Henderson.
“Adrian Hanauer grew up loving the club like some of us here, myself and Brian and there’s a number of people who were supporters of the Sounders all the way through. Having that support, we’ve been able to have consistency at the club – Brian’s the second coach, Sigi [Schmid] was a great coach to start with. There’s been a lot of consistency in the support staff and I think that helps us to be able to have some long-term thinking and not just on getting results every week.”
That continuity and clarity in terms of the organization’s direction, when paired with Seattle’s large, loud fanbase and soccer-centric environment, helps the club punch at or above its weight year over year.
“Obviously we’re always looking to bring in good players, and we have, but off the field it’s just a really professional club. It’s run the right way, we do the right things, in the community we’re out doing stuff,” said Homegrown attacker Jordan Morris. “I think that helps lead to success. And we’re in a great soccer city, we have the best fans in the league and there’s a big excitement around the team here. So I think that helps as well.”
Added Schmetzer on Saturday: “The people here in Seattle, we care about soccer. We enjoy going to games. We love the sport. So I’m very proud of the Seattle area.”
“A culture of data”
Spearheaded by director of soccer analytics Ravi Ramineni, the Sounders have for years been one of the most data-oriented clubs not only in MLS, but the entire world. Every major personnel decision is informed with deep analysis and number-crunching, and technology is fully integrated with daily team activities to limit injuries and maximize performance.
They’re also fully aware that with ambition and spending on a steady rise across the league, they’ll have to innovate at similar or even greater rates in order to stay ahead of the pack.
“I think especially with our new ownership group, we have some access to technology, people who are at Microsoft, where I think we might be able to get an advantage in analytics,” said Henderson. “Ravi, who came over from Microsoft, is very good at helping with our scouting and sports science. So that combination, if we can be innovative and leaders in both of those, then I think it might make up for just going and spending the most money.”