It wasn’t as if the Sounders had a bad season. Just feels like it when they were slapped around by the bigger, older brother.
When will the Sounders grow up?
They have the popularity and business acumen that makes the rest of Major League Soccer grind molars. But, Mariners-like, they have yet to make the championship round, much less win a title.
Granted, the Mariners have a 32-year head start. But the Sounders don’t propose to play catch-up in the slog to mediocrity.
They want to be big-timers. But after four years they haven’t figured out the route. Keep going? Tear down? Slow re-build? Quick fix?
“Whether changes are moderate or dramatic, we’ll figure it out,” Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer said Tuesday afternoon. “We’re in a very constrained situation (with the MLS salary cap). We’re going to decide what to do with the 2012 group that sets us up with a better chance to win the MLS Cup.”
Hanauer and coach Sigi Schmid met with media at the team’s Tukwila headquarters to dissect the season, whose championship will be decided Saturday in Los Angeles when Houston plays the Galaxy, Western Conference conquerors of the Sounders. The play of the Galaxy’s three designated players, international stars Robbie Keane, David Beckham and Landon Donovan, was often cited as the difference with the lesser-experienced Sounders.
Hanauer quickly dismissed the notion that LA’s lavish spend on its DPs was a model worthy of emulation by the Sounders, but also admitted the Sounders DPs –Mauro Rosales, Christian Tiffert and Fredy Montero – were insufficient to beat such a veteran team of much international experience.
“It’s fair to say, none of our DPs in our playoff series (over four years) has carried our team on its back,” Hanauer said. “It doesn’t mean they couldn’t, or won’t. It’s sports cliches, but we would like to have players that can carry a team on their backs and over the hump.”
A part of that desire would seem to include paying for D, somewhat in the fashion of the Galaxy. The three LA stars were paid a combined $9.8 million in salary, the three Sounders a combined $1.6 million. Not gonna happen here, said Hanauer.
“We don’t want to be Los Angeles — we just don’t,” he said. “It’s a different market. In order to get attention with all the sports teams in LA, they needed guys like Beckham, Keane and Donovan. They (and other MLS teams) also signed other big name players who didn’t quite work out.
“We’re looking for players who fit in and want to be in this market. We’ve had players presented to us with names as big as those in LA and New York. They have to be happy in the little old Northwest. Seattle is not Los Angeles or New York.”
True dat. To cite one example, Seattle outdraws LA 2-to-1 and New York 3-to-1. But turnstile prosperity in the little old Northwest is not necessarily equivalent to success on the pitch, Hanauer said.
He acknowledged only that revenues were “in the top third” of the league, when the widespread assumption is Sounders income is No. 1 by a mile. He cited a long list of expense items, such as revenue sharing, transfer fees facilities, scouting, academies, training and equipment that fans don’t often consider.
“We want to run a rational business,” he said. “Fans don’t understand the complexity of how (revenue from) 40,000 tickets pencils out. Fans are one tiny part of an operation that has a lot of moving parts . . . I don’t think you very often go into Starbucks with long lines, and and then write a letter asking Starbucks to lower prices because they have lots of customers.”
Hanauer later said he regretted use of the word “tiny” and emphasized that ownership has always believed it is steward of a community enterprise and are not getting rich off the cash flow of the business.
It’s unlikely that anyone in ownership needs the cash, but after four years of success, it’s not an unreasonable expectation for a North America’s most passionate fan base to expect ultimate results.
One move became apparent indirectly Tuesday: The Seattle days of Fredy Montero seem short. The mercurial Colombian has been a star here, but being oh-for-four years in playoff scoring has made him the likeliest high-profile Sounder to hit the road.
It was telling that, when asked whether the team has peaked or is still growing, Schmid said it was growing, then rattled off 10 names of players, none of which included Fredy Montero.
When asked directly if he wanted Montero back, Schmid dodged: “I want all my players back.”
Hanauer came back to the question of Montero, saying, “We’re willing to look at anything that makes the team better.”
Presumably, “anything” should include a bigger investment in player personnel that is permitted only for DPs. Hanauer rightly cited the carcasses of soccer leagues across the American landscape that have spent themselves into oblivion, and the many mistakes made by other MLS clubs in throwing money at underproductive DPs, including Seattle.
As with every other major professional sport, the pursuit of the high-profile veteran free agent is fraught with peril, as Jack Zduriencik will tell you about his first big signing as Mariners GM: Chone Figgins. But in American soccer, the risk is far smaller: Montero makes $756,000, or about 12 Figginses.
The Sounders can’t afford everything, but they can afford one thing in the pursuit of greatness: Risk.