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Final Expansion Lesson: Seattle Sounders

The Sounders provide Atlanta United with the blueprint for expansion success.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Since the Designated Player era began in 2007, nine new teams have joined MLS: Toronto FC (2007), San Jose Earthquakes (rejoined MLS in 2008), Seattle Sounders (2009), Philadelphia Union (2010), Vancouver Whitecaps FC (2011), Portland Timbers (2011), Montreal Impact (2012), NYCFC (2015), and Orlando City SC (2015).

But as we've pointed out many times before, only the Seattle Sounders made the playoffs in their first year. They went 12-7-11 that season, finishing 3rd in the West and 4th overall before losing in the conference semis 1-0 to the Dynamo. They also won the U.S. Open Cup that year, and since their inception they've made the playoffs every year. They are arguably one of the league's most successful franchises, both in terms of on-field success and ticket sales, even if they still haven't yet won an MLS Cup.

Why did the 2009 Sounders succeed while so many others failed? I've focused my previous posts on what Atlanta United could learn from what other teams did wrong, but it's nice to finally be able to focus on all the things a new franchise did right.

As we've seen, the two most recent expansion teams, NYCFC and Orlando City, spent big but missed the cut. The Sounders ownership also spent a decent amount of money on players, paying the 4th highest average player salary in the league. (Their $3 million payroll in 2009 might seem tiny now, but this was before the real deal DP money started swirling around.) They spent the money wisely, assembling a roster with the right mix of value contracts, quality players at a reasonable price, and a solid DP choice.

Find Value at Home and Abroad

The Sounders got defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado on loan from Colombian side Deportivo Cali. Hurtado was rock solid in the back, playing 27 games and making the MLS All-Star roster as a coach's selection. Considering his tiny $37,000 salary, that's a good return on investment. Another great value pick was future U.S. international midfielder Brad Evans, whom the Sounders snagged with the 10th pick in the expansion draft. Evans earned only $45,500, but played 27 games. Five relatively inexpensive holdovers from the previous USL franchise also got playing time.

Build Up Your Roster's Middle Managers

Any quality MLS roster needs a solid foundation built on "middle management" players—those players with six-figure salaries earning much more than the rookies, but much less than the DP's. For the Sounders, one of these guys was former USL player was Sebastian Le Toux, the team's first signing with a contract just over $100,000, who played 28 games and played a significant role in the team's U.S. Open Cup semifinal win.

Two of the most successful mid-range players were strikers Fredy Montero ($155,000) and Nate Jaqua ($208,121). Also on loan from Deportivo Cali, Montero had 12 goals, tied for 3rd in the league with Landon Donovan, and had 7 assists. He was an All-Star game coach's selection, and Player of the Month in March. Jaqua was the team's first expansion pick, and racked up 9 goals and 7 assists.

And of course, there was one of the greatest U.S. keepers of all time, Kasey Keller. He took home a high salary for a keeper ($300,000), but you can't argue he didn't earn his keep with the second best goals against average (0.92) in MLS.

Sign a Productive Designated Player

"I'm not as focused on getting someone because it's good for marketing," ATL UTD President Darren Eales said recently, "but I am focused on getting a player who is effective for us in terms of helping us win on the pitch." That seems obvious, but just look at NYCFC last year—they got great production out of Villa, but Pirlo wasn't his former self and Lampard barely sniffed the pitch.

Seattle chose Freddie Ljungberg as its first designated player, a guy well known to Arsenal fans as a member of The Invincibles, but not exactly a global brand in his own right. Ljungberg earned around $1.3 million that year, lower than what other DP's like Beckham ($6.5M), Cuauhtémoc Blanco ($2.9M), and Juan Pablo Ángel ($1.8M) made. He had 2 goals and 9 assists, playing in only 21 games because of a hip injury and a bout of migraine headaches. He was named a first XI All-Star, and won Player of the Month honors in October. Ljungberg didn't exactly set the league on fire, but at just over a million dollars a year, he was the kind of high-quality, low-risk DP signing ATL UTD should consider.

Focus on Defense

From the start, the Sounders emphasized their desire to build the team with an "attacking philosophy." No doubt the team's frontline of Ljungberg, Montero, and Jaqua was aggressive; they were called for offsides 91 times, tied for 3rd most in the league. But the Sounders finished with only 38 goals—the 8th highet total in the league—and had the lowest number of shots on goal in MLS.

Their defense got them to the playoffs. They tied with the Dynamo for least amount of goals allowed with 29, only allowing 10 goals in their 15 home games. Central defenders Tyrone Marshall and Hurtado were paired together throughout the season, building a solid rapport with right back mainstay James Riley and keeper Kasey Keller. The Sounders D didn't allow a goal for their first 375 minutes of play, and earned 10 shutouts.

I almost hate to point out something this basic, but based on how NYCFC, Orlando City, and Montreal all struggled to keep the ball out of their own nets, it's not a given that a team's leadership will do what's necessary to build a robust backline.

Hire a Manager with Titles on His Resume

The Sounders went the MLS experience route and hired Sigi Schmid, a manager with years of experience leading the L.A. Galaxy and Columbus Crew. He'd won two MLS Cups, once in 2002 with the Galaxy and in 2008 with the crew, and been named MLS Coach of the Year in 1999 and 2008. Having given ownership no reason to fire him, he's still with the team, although who knows what might happen if he's not able to turn the team around after this season's slow start.

In terms of takeaways for Eales and his team, there aren't a lot of coaches out there with Schmid's MLS bona fides, although Jason Kreis, NYCFC's prematurely dumped former manager, has been thrown around as a possible hire. Whether or not ATL UTD chooses a coach with MLS experience, it'd be nice to see at least one recent league title on their resume.