By JOSE M. ROMERO
The season came to an uninspiring end Sunday night for the Seattle Sounders.
Given the deficit they faced, 0-1 going into the last leg of the playoff series against the L.A. Galaxy, the Sounders needed an energetic, aggressive performance, a shutdown defensive effort and some spark on offense from its scorers to give themselves a chance to win and advance.
They got virtually none of that, save for a late goal from Steve Zakuani that only made the final aggregate score 3-1. And out of the playoffs quietly went the Sounders, who had played so well in the second half of the regular season only to miss far too many scoring chances and break down in defending set pieces and make it too easy for the Galaxy to take advantage.
Now the Sounders begin the process of assessing who they are, what they have, where they want to be and what it will take to get there after two solid seasons in MLS, only to produce an 0-3-1 mark in the playoffs in those years.
The Sounders can take a measure of dignity in knowing they've won two trophies in five competitions in their first two years. But coach Sigi Schmid and players have always stressed that an MLS Cup is the highest of those titles, and the Sounders have yet to show they are ready to be serious championship contenders.
Schmid said the team still has some growing up to do, maturing so that players can handle the pressure of big games. He said his 2010 team was affected by injuries, which was the case earlier in the season, and suggested that Sunday's game might have been "too big an occasion" for a couple of his players.
There was more. Schmid wants a more experienced, hardened, craftier team in 2011.
"For me it's already a process of deciding, 'OK, these are the nucleus pieces we can build with and this is where we need to get a little bit better,' " Schmid told the Seattle Times and other media outlets after the game.
First, the team has to figure out its budget for going after players to make the team more experienced and big-game savvy. They might have to part with other players to bolster their coffers.
The Sounders thought they'd addressed their need for a target forward when they added Blaise N'kufo, but it took N'kufo some time to adjust to MLS and regain match fitness after the World Cup. And N'kufo was a non-factor in the playoffs.
The Sounders have plenty of speed, but that only got them so far and when the Galaxy negated it by controlling the midfield, that advantage was lost. Also, not having Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans all season might have cost the team a couple of wins, the difference between a higher finish in the West and playing the mighty Galaxy.
On defense, the loss of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado to injury had an effect, even though Jeff Parke did an admirable job at center back. The Sounders displayed a lot of depth and it was a plus over the course of so many games this year between MLS, Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League, plus friendlies.
And what of goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who had a couple of forgettable games this season but still played at a high level despite his advanced age? It seems almost certain he'll be back for one more year, at least, so he can be part of the Northwest rivalry with Portland and Vancouver. Or could the Sounders have other plans for Keller?
There is a good nucleus of players in Seattle and several up-and-coming youngsters. For the short term, the Sounders are going to have a hard time choosing whom to protect in the expansion draft, because with their depth, they're almost certain to lose two players.
Also, to get to the next level in the postsesason, the team will have to consider giving up on some players the fans have come to adore but that perhaps management deems not in the team's immediate plans.
One thing appears certain – Even Seattle's most devoted supporters aren't likely to be fine with a third straight quick playoff exit. Expectations will continue to rise.