The Sounders are certifiably one of the four best teams in Major League Soccer. But the fact that, by a slim margin, they will not get a chance to prove they are the best team, had them sputtering and muttering Sunday night.
They don't quite know with whom to be more angry: Themselves or the officiating.
Again, they were thwarted by their nemesis, the Los Angeles Galaxy. Again, they played valiantly in the second match, but were too miserable in the first match to overcome it.
And again, they were hosed by a bad call or two.
The Sounders won the match 2-1 Sunday, but lost the Western Conference final series on aggregate goals, 4-2. So the Galaxy get to move on to defend their MLS crown at home Dec. 1 against Houston. The Sounders get to mutter through the winter.
A season that started in a cold rain in March and ended in a cold rain in November had a chance to continue. For 10 minutes, the inspired, relentless Sounders held a 2-0 lead after Zach Scott, in the 57th minute, headed in a low, hard corner kick from Christian Tiffert. They had the Clink crowd of 44,575 in a frenzy as they pressed for the tying goal that would have forced 30 minutes of overtime against a team missing injured Landon Donovan (hamstring) and with usual starter Juninho in reserve.
Then Adam Johansson was called for a handball as he and the Galaxy's best player, DP Robbie Keane, battled for possession of the ball along the end line. There was little doubt ball hit hand, but Keane was awarded a penalty kick that he easily converted. That killed Seattle's momentum, because getting three goals in the remaining 23 minutes against a team as smart as the Galaxy just wasn't going to happen.
"That was kind of a harsh call," said Sounders coach Sigi Schmid. "It was clever move (by Keane). He wasn't passing to anybody. He was trying to draw a penalty.
"Common sense might say it's not a PK."
To a pool reporter, referee Mark Geiger explained the call, comparing it to a non-PK call earlier on a handball by Sounders defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado:
"The hand was in an unnatural playing position, and (Johansson) was making himself bigger by taking space. His arms were outside of his body. Hurtado’s arm was next to his body. He was not making himself bigger. This was a case of ball-to-hand.”
But that call was less infuriating than the offsides call in the 11th minute that took down an apparent goal by Eddie Johnson. Replays showed Johnson was onside.
Schmid hadn't seen the replay, so he held back, saying, "Obviously that (goal) would have helped us."
GM Adrian Hanauer didn't see replays either, but staffers in the booth told him there was no foul. The top Sounder, majority owner Joe Roth, saw the replays and declined to be diplomatic.
"The officiating," said Roth on the way to the locker room, "is bullshit."
Hanauer declined to endorse Roth's words, but he shared the point.
"The thing that frustrates players and coaches is they lose lose their jobs when (officials) make mistakes (costing games)," said Hanauer, a member of the competition committee. "There doesn't seem to be any significant consequences to making game-changing decisions that aren't right. I'm disappointed. A couple big calls go against us; if they hadn't, the game is different.
"I'm as culpable and involved as anyone (in officiating quality). I just want to make it better so that I don't have to live with this on as regular a basis. (Officiating) is a tough job. They are going to make mistakes no matter what, until we implement a little bit of video review. Theoretically, those bad decisions balance out. It didn't feel like it for us this season. I'm sure there are a lot of teams who feel it wasn't balanced."
When they weren't complaining about the calls, the Sounders owned up to putting themselves in a position to need every break to win because, for the second year in a row, they played a lousy opener in the two-leg format.
"The damage was done to us in game number one," said Schmid. "We’re showing the capabilities that we can win games, we just need to eliminate the losses by the size they are. LA lost its first playoff game against San Jose (1-0 in the Western semifinals) and came back to win (the series). If we lost one-nothing in LA, we’d still be out there on the field playing.”
As for the bigger picture of the season, Schmid was proud of finally moving out of the playoffs for the first time in the club's four-year MLS existence. But that buzz lasted less than three days before they were bludgeoned 3-0 in LA by the Galaxy.
The rest of the season was solid but trophy-free. No side baubles like the U.S. Open Cup or the Cascadia Cup. And they finished with 56 points in the regular season, seven fewer than a year ago.
So the question of progress is debatable, at least in the mind of Scott, who besides scoring the header had the assist on Johnson's goal in the 13th minute for a 1-0 lead.
“I don’t want to be a pessimist," he said. "But our goal coming in isn’t to advance to the playoffs, it’s to win the whole thing. So no, it isn’t progress.”
One of the casualties of the disappointing finish may be Fredy Montero. The striker from Colombia was shut out again Sunday, making it oh-for-four-years as far as scoring in the playoffs. That's not the kind of production Seattle wants from one of its three designated players.
Montero has had moments of greatness broken by stretches of invisibility. A little like the Sounders.
With the game in the balance in the 74th minute, he was pulled by Schmid and replaced with David Estrada. That may have been it for Montero. It hasn't worked well enough.
In the wake of the defeat, no one was talking about Montero and his future. They were too busy bitching. For an outfit that has ambitions to be a world-class club, and has the resources to do it, the failure to become kings of the American hill showed its ugliness Sunday night.
As the game ended, midfielder and captain Osvaldo Alonso, the team's best player, accosted the officials at midfield and had to be pulled away.
Already assessed a yellow card in-game, Geiger gave him a second after the match, making for a red card, meaning that he will be forced to sit out the Sounders' opener in 2013.
The season barely over, and they are already a little behind for next year. For the final night of 2012, little was good for the muttering, sputtering Sounders.