Sounders Thriving in First MLS Season

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Peter Vagenas was a 20-year-old "kid"sitting in the seats at the Rose Bowl when the expansion ChicagoFire won the 1998 MLS Cup.

"They definitely were not an expansion team," Vagenas said.

And neither is his current team, the Seattle Sounders FC.

Both Chicago and Seattle hold the rare distinction of being theonly two MLS expansion teams to qualify for the playoffs in theirfirst seasons. The fact that it's taken 11 years for anotherexpansion team to make the MLS postseason is the surprising part.

But Seattle is in, no matter what the Sounders do in theirregular season finale on Saturday night against FC Dallas. Theystill have a chance of finishing as the top seed in the WesternConference depending on how the final week shakes out.

The time, effort and money the franchise invested in making sureSeattle didn't look like an expansion team has paid off with apostseason berth and the lingering possibility of Seattle playingfor the MLS Cup on its home field next month.

"Now we're at the point we know anything can happen," Vagenassaid. "We never thought of ourselves as an expansion team. We'recertainly not treated as an expansion team by our fans. We'recertainly not treated as an expansion team by our ownershipgroup."

Making sure Seattle was not created from the start as "justanother franchise" can be largely credited for its success in yearone. The owners - Joe Roth, Adrian Hanauer, Paul Allen's Vulcancorporation and Drew Carey - opened their pocket books and showed awillingness to bring in the right players for the right price.

They persuaded Freddie Ljungberg to come from Europe and be thecontroller of the midfield for $1.3 million per season. Theybrought home goalkeeper Kasey Keller, the most capped keeper inU.S. national team history, after more than a decade touring thetop leagues in Europe.

They hired MLS Cup-winning coach Sigi Schmid as the ring leader,then made deft moves in free agency and in the expansion draft.

As important was the infrastructure that greeted these players.They have their own training facility with grass and turf fields.Vagenas said one of the little things that doesn't seem like much,but has resonated with players, is that the team has lunchavailable every day for the players after training.

"Small things like that you don't get with too many otherfranchises across this league," Vagenas said.

The result? An 11-win team with 44 points headed into the seasonfinale that will sell out every home game this season and set theexample for how an MLS franchise should make its debut.

"I think we checked all the boxes," Schmid said. "You have tomake sure you get some quality players from the expansion draftwhich we did ... you have to do well with your foreign signingswhich I think we have done. ... I think you also have to getsomebody from the draft and we did that. Then we signed some goodfree agents. We were able to check off all the boxes. I think someof the other expansion teams haven't necessarily done that."

Seattle's successful first season is even more impressive whencompared with the first-year performances of the four most recentexpansion franchises.

The return of San Jose in 2008 was the most successful with theEarthquakes earning 33 points. Toronto's debut in 2007 was hugelypopular, but TFC still managed just 25 points.

Both Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA struggled in their firstseasons. RSL finished with just 20 points and Chivas had just 18.

"If you look in the past the new franchises are just gettingbeaten all the time and not doing much good the first couple ofseasons and we changed that," Ljungberg said. "I think all theplayers and managing staff should be proud."

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