SEATTLE (AP) — For the second straight year, the Seattle Sounders' season ended prematurely because a brief breakdown in the playoffs proved too much to overcome.
This time, though, the Sounders trophy case will be completely empty for 2012, potentially leading to more changes as the most successful expansion franchise in Major League Soccer history continues to try to match its success in the stands with success on the field.
Once again, Seattle rewrote the MLS standard for running a successful franchise, averaging more than 40,000 fans per game in 2012. But they saw their run of three straight U.S. Open Cup championships end with a loss to Sporting Kansas City in the 2012 final, then couldn't overcome a three-goal deficit and lost to Los Angeles in the Western Conference finals on Sunday night.
Now comes an offseason likely filled with more roster tinkering by coach Sigi Schmid and general manager Adrian Hanauer with the hopes of finally clearing Seattle's postseason hurdle.
"Maybe we're the kind of team that's got to go one step each year," Schmid said. "The progress is, for me, the last six playoff games we've played last year and this year, we've won three. We've won three, we've tied one, we've lost two. The problem is the ones we lose, we lose three-nothing and we bury ourselves with that loss, but we're winning 50 percent more of our playoff games. We're showing the capabilities that we can win games, we just need to eliminate the losses by the size they are."
Seattle was eliminated from the playoffs in the second leg of the conference finals on Sunday night when it could not rally from a 3-0 deficit against the Galaxy. It was an eerily similar scenario to a year earlier, when the Sounders were knocked out in the conference semifinals by Real Salt Lake after also falling behind 3-0.
But the loss to Los Angeles came with the added sting of Seattle missing out on a chance to host the MLS Cup final.
"Everyone had individual goals, and mine was to win an MLS Cup," Seattle forward Eddie Johnson said. "I have never won an MLS Cup and I don't know what it feels like."
Johnson represented Seattle's biggest move in the offseason and he paid off. The striker finished with 17 goals in all competitions and was easily Seattle's most consistent scoring threat. His play also earned him a spot back with the U.S. men's national team, yet another notch in reinvigorating his career.
Johnson was on a one-year deal with the Sounders with a club option for 2013, and his scoring prowess proved potentially more valuable than what any of Seattle's three current designated players bring.
"I couldn't ask to be on a better team, in a better environment, or in a more professional organization. We have a good coach, a good group of guys, and if it wasn't for these guys, I wouldn't be in the position I am in today," Johnson said. "Coming in as the new guy is difficult. Sometimes it takes you a season to adapt to the type of play that they like to play, but we had a good group of guys, and they have been spot on with me every day."
What Seattle does with its designated player spots could be the big offseason question.
Fredy Montero has grown up in Seattle, but has failed to show up in the playoffs during his career. Montero has never scored in the playoffs and only picked up his first postseason point when he assisted on the winning goal in the conference semifinals against Real Salt Lake.
Despite his creativity, Mauro Rosales has been slowed by injuries during the playoffs each of the last two years.
Midfielder Christian Tiffert's best performance came on Sunday night, but left some wondering where that had been since his arrival.
"The general message to the team was we have to eliminate those three-nothing losses in the playoffs because we're showing that we can win playoff games," Schmid said. "That was the general message to them, to understand that we did make progress this year and we went one step further, but obviously at this stage we're all disappointed. We need to make sure that the energy with which we played tonight is the energy we play with all the time. Sometimes that's hard over the course of a 34-game season, but it's something that we need to bring all the time."