In constant pursuit of excellence, Sounders find a good fit in Christian Tiffert
The Sounders aren't just novel and cool anymore. They're a model franchise with a sterling track record.
Seattle Times staff columnist
TUKWILA — For the Sounders FC, life is incredible and impossible.
At only 3 ½ years old, the Major League Soccer team already is a consistent source of pride in a Seattle sports scene still on the mend from a disastrous end to the past decade. The Sounders aren't just novel and cool anymore. They're a model franchise with a sterling track record. Incredible.
But that reputation comes with the burden of having to outdo yourself, which is the tough part of life. They have an entertaining product, an enviable bond with the community, a playoff-laden history and even three consecutive U.S. Open Cup championships.
The league title, the MLS Cup, is missing, though. We'd call it elusive, but they've only had three shots at it, and how many teams have ever gone from birth to king before they reach kindergarten age? Impossible.
This is the Sounders' life, though, one of unfathomable highs and lows that only seem low because they've never had to ask for patience or perspective.
They're way ahead of the game, yet their standard is so high that it feels they're almost overdue. This season, in only 21 matches, the joy and the jostling have alternated like crazy.
There was the nine-match stretch of beauty to start the season in which the Sounders went 7-1-1 despite injuries and the need to integrate some new talented pieces. And then there was the nine-match winless streak that produced a 0-4-5 record and spanned nearly two months and left the masses as dissatisfied and worried about the team as they've ever been.
In a year of extremes, the Sounders were certain to adjust the roster in a significant way, and they did that last week with the acquisition of German midfielder Christian Tiffert. To bring him aboard as a designated player, they had to lose one of their most talented (and increasingly erratic) players, midfielder Alvaro Fernandez, a designated player who was traded to the Chicago Fire. The roster shuffle also created enough salary cap space to bring in 23-year-old Honduran midfielder Mario Martinez on loan from Real Espana.
On paper, it appears to be a shrewd move to stabilize a team that has enough talent to win the MLS Cup. In Tiffert, the Sounders now have a player who fits the prototype of what they need to improve.
"He's a very simple player," said Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid, meaning Tiffert plays within himself. "He plays one- and two-touch, but he has very good vision."
Tiffert is adequate defensively, but at his best, he's an assists machine who could really help the offense flourish. Just as important are his intangibles: He's a leader and a veteran who should be dependable in a postseason environment. And at age 30, he's still in his prime.
"It depends not on what you speak," Tiffert said when asked how he could help the Sounders. "It depends on the action on the field."
Tiffert is the sixth designated player in franchise history. The others are a mixed bag of long-term successes (Fredy Montero, Mauro Rosales, Fernandez), short-term successes turned sour (Freddie Ljungberg) and the absolute wrong fit (Blaise Nkufo). The Sounders have learned many lessons with designated players, especially when it comes to high-profile imports. Tiffert is a very good talent, but he also seems to be the kind of player who will be a unifying presence.
Adrian Hanauer, the team's general manager and part owner, is naturally meticulous in making moves, and the front office has made a thoughtful decision.
Now, the Sounders just need it to look good on the field.
"We've had 3 ½ very good years, but we're always going to try to get better," Hanauer said. "If we hadn't gone through that bad stretch of nine games, do things maybe end up a little differently? That's a fair question. But even if we hadn't gone through that, we were still going to be looking."
Schmid cautioned that the MLS is a notoriously streaky league, so experiencing bookends of best and worst aren't that shocking. Still, the fact the Sounders saw those extremes provided clarity of how fickle things could be with this roster.
So, they had to make an impactful change.
If Tiffert gets acclimated quickly, then perhaps the only thing missing in the Sounders' incredible life won't be such an impossibly ambitious pursuit. And even if they don't win the MLS Cup this year, the Sounders continue to be set up for more playoff appearances in the future. In professional sports, sustained success often results in the ultimate prize.
"If you continue to have success, it's sort of like turning a microscope over. All your problems seem real far away," Schmid said. "Our league is a streaky league, and the highs and the lows, that can benefit us. Even when we were struggling, our players never lost faith. If anything, their belief grew stronger that we're capable and have the makeup to win a championship."
Acquiring Tiffert isn't a statement that the Sounders are going for it this year. It's a reiteration that they're always going for it.
For sure, they're a different kind of Seattle sports team.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer.
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