In 2009 the Seattle Sounders — then an expansion team — made the MLS Cup playoffs. Then they made it the next year, and then every year since, right through to this season. The Sounders begin the 2018 playoffs as the league’s hottest team, on the heels of two consecutive MLS Cup appearances.

Why is this team again in the playoffs, again one of the favorites, and again the envy of the rest of the league?

In early July it looked like the playoff streak would end. At the season’s midpoint, Seattle had just 16 points, mostly because it had scored only 15 goals. The team’s attack was painfully ponderous. At times Seattle resembled a human foosball team, where each line of players might occasionally move side to side but never ever forward.

Wunderkind striker Jordan Morris tore his ACL on the season’s opening day. Club and American soccer legend Clint Dempsey had become more dour than dominant. Talismanic attacker Nicolas Lodeiro appeared to be personally defeated by his near-miss at making Uruguay’s squad for the World Cup.

Leave it to Seattle General Manager Garth Lagerway to find a solution. Lagerway, who took over for owner Adrian Hanauer as the club’s GM in 2015, has continued the club’s tradition of finding impact players precisely when needed. One example is Lodeiro, who rescued the team from quicksand in mid-2016 and spurred the Sounders to an MLS Cup victory. Lagerway’s 2018 signing of Peruvian striker Raul Ruidiaz in late June will go down as another.

Ruidiaz, winner of two scoring titles in Liga MX, was the key that unlocked Lodeiro and the rest of the Seattle attack. The Peruvian scored 10 goals in 14 second-half matches. More important, he actually ran toward the opponent’s goal from time to time, stretching defenses and opening space for Lodeiro.

Seattle, duly roused, won an astonishing 14 of its 17 second-half games, including an MLS-record nine consecutive matches. It rose from the basement of the Western Conference to clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs.

It was another job well done for the league’s steadiest club, owned by Hanauer since it was a USL team in 2002. Coach Brian Schmetzer played for the NASL version of the Sounders in the 1980s, coached the USL version in the 2000s, and now manages the MLS version, after serving as an assistant coach for the first eight years of the team’s MLS tenure.

Since the beginning, the Sounders have done things the right way. Along the way they have become the league’s model franchise.

Along with Toronto, Seattle was the first to figure out that playing downtown, not in a far-flung suburb, was a key for attracting fans. It also was among the first to market itself not to families with soccer-playing kids but to die-hard fans who come back week after week, not just when it fits into their schedule.

Marketing aside, though, Seattle has managed to strike a near-perfect balance between spending big and developing young players. The Sounders have lost big-name players yet found ways to refresh their squad. Steady success might seem straightforward, but it’s a trick no other MLS franchise has pulled off. Once again this year, the rest of the league wants to be Seattle.

 

Online: startribune.com/soccer