There is something that feels a little bit different about this victory for the Seattle Sounders in MLS Cup.
It is odd calling the Sounders MLS Cup champs in a year that they never really stabilized the way other champs have. There was no regular season domination. Chad Marshall’s retirement raised questions. They entered as the second-seed in the Western Conference. However, they finished a full 16 points behind LAFC, and they spent most of the season closer to the middle tier of playoff contenders.
Calling their championship random delegitimizes it. Seattle obviously deserved their ring, beating LAFC on the road in the Western Conference final. No one in the West outside of LAFC was a convincing contender, and Seattle took advantage of their favorable path.
But the Sounders are not like other recent champions of MLS. There is no coronation. Atlanta United won last year after a 69-point regular season, running out the best player in MLS at the time (Miguel Almiron) and a record goal-scorer (Josef Martinez). Toronto FC won the year before, and they remain the best team in league history. The 2016 Sounders championship team had dominated the second half of that season after the emergence of Nicolas Lodeiro.
An LAFC championship would have been the expected result. Another Atlanta Cup would have made more sense, or even an NYCFC Cup. Seattle never looked dominant on their road to the title, and coming up with reasons for their success beyond “they defend with discipline” and “Lodeiro and Jordan Morris are good” isn’t the simple task it is with other title teams. It’s reminiscent of the St. Louis Blues winning the Stanley Cup. They’re not the ones with the best player; they’re just the ones that navigated the postseason better than anyone else.
Sounders = dynasty?
And so we face the question: Is this Sounders team a dynasty? This was their third MLS Cup appearance in four years, and their second title. They’ve been one of the most consistently successful and relevant team in that stretch.
In the last four years, Seattle have the third-most total points in the 136 regular season games played, behind only the two New York teams. (By points per game, they drop to fifth, after adding Atlanta and LAFC.) They have the best defensive record of teams that have been around for the entire stretch. In the standings, they’ve finished second three times and fourth once.
Simply reaching the final so many teams is a feat arguably worthy of being crowned as a dynasty, regardless of anything else. But the Sounders have never been world-beaters. They are a team that is good enough to win and take advantage when others falter. By American Soccer Analysis’ Expected Points metric, taken as a total number since 2016, they are eighth, behind teams like Portland and Columbus.
The Sounders are Sporting KC from 2015-18, only Seattle had playoff success. One could argue that the combination of regular season solidity and playoff success is enough for all-time great status. Part of being a dynasty, though, is feeling like a dynasty. This is all extremely subjective. Sometimes there are no cold hard facts to coherently explain an answer.
Are the second-stage LeBron James Cavaliers a dynasty? They made the NBA Finals four straight years, and won once. But the Golden State Warriors beat them the other times, and completely overshadowed Cleveland’s success in a weak Eastern Conference.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been good since 2006, when the Sidney Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era started. They’ve won three Stanley Cups and been to another in the 13 years that they’ve been successful. But despite their back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017, the Penguins are not a dynasty. They are simply a team that has had one of the most impressive sustained runs in hockey history, with the greatest hockey player of all time leading the charge.
The Sounders also have an impressive sustained run, though it is a decade shorter than the Penguins’. The Cup runs don’t do enough to give them “dynasty” status on their own. We can be impressed by what the Sounders accomplished, and if they continue it, they will only improve their legacy. But as of now, they are a team that interrupted a run of dominant champions.