Back in August 2015, as the Seattle Sounders were negotiating to acquire Panamanian centerback Román Torres, a Spanish phrase began to make the social-media rounds: Hay fe, roughly equivalent to “Have faith.” It became a sort of unofficial fan mantra, especially during downturns in the team’s fortunes: for example, when Torres, after quickly establishing himself as a foundation stone in the team’s defense and finally facilitating a turnaround in 2015’s severe summer slump, sustained a season-ending knee injury on September 12—one month to the day after he was signed.
“What more could go wrong?!?” fans lamented. We had no idea. Never has our fe been more tested, or rewarded, than in the current season, which will end Saturday as the Sounders take Toronto’s BMO Field to compete—for the first time since the team joined Major League Soccer in 2009, despite making the playoffs each and every year—for the MLS Cup. A telenovela scriptwriter on peyote could not devise more are-you-fucking-kidding-me plot twists than those of the Sounders’ 2016 campaign. Consider:
Offseason 2015–16 Concerns about his long-term health, spurred particularly by his unavailability for the team’s three 2015 postseason matches, lead the Sounders, reportedly, to consider the unthinkable: “Openly shopping,” to use The Seattle Times’ phrase, Osvaldo Alonso, then 30—arguably the best midfielder in MLS since he joined the Sounders in 2009 and unarguably the team’s heart and soul.
January 21 Weeks of aching uncertainty end when the Sounders sign Jordan Morris, then just 21 but already tapped for the U.S. Men’s National Team, to launch his pro career. Raised on Mercer Island and with strong Sounders ties—his father is the club’s Chief Medical Director—Morris had nevertheless been courted by German club Werder Bremen.
February 25 With the start of the season only 10 days away, the team announces that star striker Obafemi Martins (40 goals in 72 appearances over three seasons) has been transferred to Chinese team Shanghai Greenland Shenhua FC.
May The original timeframe speculated for Torres’ return. You can guess how that worked out.
July 20 Seismic Shift Week begins with a loss in L.A. eliminating the Sounders from this year’s Open Cup, a tournament auxiliary to the MLS season which the team had won in 2009, ’10, ’11, and ’14.
Through July 24 Every team goes through slumps, but the first half of 2016 sees the Sounders slide almost without respite to ninth place in the 10-team Western Conference, with six wins, two draws, and 12 losses. Their darkest hour, by consensus, is the July 24 loss in Kansas City, which not only provokes from the fan base unprecedented fury and disgust, but leads to . . .
July 26 The Sounders and Sigi Schmid, head coach since 2009, “agreed to mutually part ways.” Assistant coach Brian Schmetzer is named interim head coach.
July 27 After several months of pursuit, the club signs Uruguayan midfielder Nicolás Lodeiro, and (though we couldn’t know it yet) the resurgence begins.
July 28 Another returnee is midfielder Álvaro Fernández, previously with the club from 2010–12. Grumbling that bringing back former stars isn’t going to move the team forward is soon squelched as they go undefeated in their next five games, including an August 21 3-1 beatdown of archenemies the Portland Timbers, a victory that seems like a turning point in fan-base optimism.
August 28 Defender Román Torres, ebullient off the field and a rampaging beast on it, at last rejoins the lineup away in Portland and at home September 17.
September 15 Defender Zach Scott, 36, with the club since 2002 and admired, not to say worshipped, among fans for his dedication and passion, announces this season will be his last. To date, his 352 (!) all-time appearances are nearly 100 more than the next closest player in Seattle history.
September 27 An unforeseen setback: The team announces that forward Clint Dempsey will miss the rest of the season while dealing with an irregular heartbeat. His 34 goals in 72 matches since his August 2013 signing, especially his formidable partnership with Martins, contributed to the Sounders’ peak moment so far: the 2014 win of the Supporters’ Shield, given each season to the team with the best MLS record. (Dempsey has since begun light training with the team again, sparking hopes for an early 2017 return.)
October 23 The regular season ends with the Sounders clawing their way back up to fourth place in the West—from ninth!—easily qualifying for the postseason. (Six teams from each conference do; Portland, I can’t resist pointing out, is not among them.) First hurdle: an October 27 play-in match against fifth-place Kansas City, won 1-0.
October 30 The conference semifinals: home-and-away matches against first-place Dallas. Three goals in nine minutes here at CenturyLink render fans delirious; all but ensure the Sounders will advance to the next round; and lead to . . .
November 2 It’s not often the sentimental favorite for any position turns out to be the best choice, but with eight wins, four draws, and only two losses since his promotion, Brian Schmetzer proved worthy to have his “interim” tag removed, and is named head coach, riding a wave of euphoria after the win over Dallas. (To this day, the Sounders are unbeaten at home since he took over.) A Nathan Hale High School grad and member of a family that’s had a local soccer presence since 1960, Schmetzer played for the Sounders in 1980–83 and 1994, and coached the team in its lower-division United Soccer League incarnation from 2002 to 2008.
November 6 A 2-1 loss in Dallas is nevertheless enough for the Sounders to advance, on aggregate score, to the conference finals—vs. second-place Colorado—for just the third time in their MLS history.
November 22 2-1 win at home over Colorado: Not as decisive as the Dallas win, but making the Cup final seems actually within reach . . .
November 27 Sick with the flu, and banged up by Colorado’s unscrupulous thuggery, Jordan Morris—who after a bit of a slow start became the reliable scorer the fans had hoped for—rallies to score the goal that seems to nail down the team’s first-ever ascent to the Cup final. (OK, it wasn’t the flu, just a tummy bug, and he was pretty well recovered by kickoff. But as the saying goes, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”) The match ends 1-0 OMG OMG OMG!!!
November 30 Improbably, the Cup final could be in Seattle: Whichever of the two teams left standing had placed higher in the regular-season MLS standings would host. Only one Eastern Conference opponent would enable this, Montreal (11th overall of 20 teams to our seventh). Probably no other team has been rooted for as fervently in any match than we did for Montreal last week—but they lost 7-5 on aggregate to Toronto, who, in fifth place, instead earned the right to host.
It has to be the greatest comeback story in Major League Soccer’s 23 seasons: Though the Sounders have made the MLS postseason every year, this is the one where we get all the way to the Cup final? How did it happen? Some kind of unpredictable alchemy: among Lodeiro, voted MLS Newcomer of the Year; Morris, MLS Rookie of the Year; Alonso, who came back to prove every skeptic very wrong with what’s been possibly his most ferocious season yet; Cristian Roldan, the UW alumnus who’s forged a terrific midfield partnership with Alonso; Torres, who alongside veteran Chad Marshall has built a near-impenetrable wall in front of goal; keeper Stefan Frei, who’s come up with nimble and dramatic saves on those rare occasions the wall’s been penetrated; Nelson Valdez, who followed a distressing scoring drought with vital postseason goals against Kansas City and Dallas; and particularly Schmetzer, for whom, after what he’s accomplished in his four months in charge, most fans would probably take a bullet.
Fan support—for a team whose average home-game attendance is the highest in the league, roughly 11,000 more than the second-highest—is one motivating force. As Morris has said, “It’s funny looking back when everyone thought we were dead in the water … There’s always that belief in the locker room—do it for us and do it for our fans.” And as Alonso, ever focused, has put it after every playoff rung climbed, every magical win celebrated: “We aren’t finished yet.” Saturday’s match in the Canadian chill (5 p.m. PST) will see if an even happier ending can be written.