HOUSTON – Here’s a quote from coach Sigi Schmid after the Seattle Sounders’ first training session way back in January: “Names are always fun. If I can get ‘Taylor Graham’ or ‘Graham Taylor’ together I’ll be happy.”
Soon enough, Schmid came to know it was Taylor Graham, not the other way around.
And Graham himself made the team and stayed on the roster the whole season. And while injuries kept him off the pitch, he did represent the club on “The Price is Right.”
That contribution shouldn’t be ignored, because what happened off the pitch in the Sounders’ first season was as remarkable as what happened on it.
They club set a Major League Soccer record by averaging 30,897 fans per home game.
But it wasn’t just the numbers. The fans came wearing their rave-green Sounders jerseys. They marched to the match. They stood. They chanted. They sang. They combined to become perhaps the No. 1 story of United States soccer in 2009 – even topping the U.S. national team’s qualification for the 2010 World Cup, which was far more predictable than the Puget Sound region’s record-shattering embrace of its MLS expansion team.
The Sounders did their part by going 12-7-11 in the regular season, making the playoffs and winning the U.S. Open Cup. The Sounders go into the record books as MLS’ second-most successful expansion franchise since the Chicago Fire of 1998, which won the MLS Cup.
Seattle’s pursuit of that prize ended Sunday at Houston, with a 1-0 loss to the Dynamo. The result sends the two-time MLS champions on to the Western Conference final Friday at Los Angeles, while ending the Sounders’ season.
“We’re pretty happy,” veteran goalkeeper Kasey Keller said from the losing locker room at Robertson Stadium. “Granted, it’s not real easy right now because we really thought that we could have won this whole thing; and there’s no reason why we couldn’t have. But then at the same time, we won the Open Cup and we showed ourselves really well.”
Keller was one of several individual Sounders who ranked among the league’s best, finishing with the regular season’s second-best goals-against average (0.92) and tied for second-most shutouts (10). Fredy Montero finished tied for third with 12 goals. Freddie Ljungberg finished fourth in assists (nine).
Ljungberg and Montero also were the two most fouled players in MLS, and as the Sounders begin trying to improve their roster for 2010, coach Sigi Schmid said he hopes the league goes about trying to improve its officiating.
“The referees overall in our league don’t protect the good players enough,” he said. “There’s a lot of late hits. There’s a lot of bumps off the ball. There’s a lot of tackles from behind that I don’t think they’re punished enough. That’s something that has to be improved in our game.”
More Sounders honors lie ahead. Today, either Keller, Ljungberg or Montero will be named MLS newcomer of the year. On Wednesday, Schmid is a finalist for his third coach of the year award. Next week, the league’s Best XI will be named, and the goal of the year and save of the year will be announced.
Then, on Nov. 22, Puget Sound-area soccer fans will gather one final time this season at Qwest Field for the MLS Cup championship game.
After that, Seattle is likely to lose one player in the Philadelphia Union’s expansion draft. And that will signal the start of the reshaping of the Sounders FC roster for the 2010 season, which begins March 25 at home against the Union.
“It’s hard to separate (the loss to Houston) from the bigger picture,” general manager Adrian Hanauer said Sunday. “But I couldn’t be more proud of the entire organization, from management to the coaches to the players – especially the players who didn’t have to believe from Day One, as an expansion team, but they did.
“They worked all year, bought into the system, were a great part of the community, great chemistry, and good soccer players.”
Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808