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Originally published Sunday, October 23, 2011 at 9:09 PM

Sounders have MLS Cup aspirations for postseason

This year is different, the Sounders say. This year it's MLS Cup or bust.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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CARSON, Calif. — This year is different, the Sounders say.

This year it's MLS Cup or bust.

For the third straight season, Seattle has qualified for the MLS playoffs, but loftier expectations this year have resulted in a much stronger sense of motivation heading into a Western Conference semifinal against Real Salt Lake.

"The guys in the locker room know that they're not done," coach Sigi Schmid said after Saturday's regular-season finale, a 3-1 road win against Chivas USA, at The Home Depot Center.

"They want to make more noise than they have in the past and they want to come back here (for the MLS Cup) on November 20th."

Championship aspirations were reaffirmed throughout a sensational regular season in what general manager Adrian Hanauer called "continual milestones."

"We knew we were going to make the playoffs; then we win the U.S. Open Cup — check that off," he said. "Then we qualified for the (CONCACAF) Champions League quarterfinals — check that off."

Only one check remains, and the team is confident it's better suited for a title run than it has been in its previous two years — each of which abruptly ended with early first-round exits.

Goalkeeper Kasey Keller said making the playoffs in Year 1 wasn't necessarily a surprise for the expansion team, "but it was definitely a bit of, 'Great, we made it!' "

Then, in Year 2, Seattle had to expend so much energy in overcoming a dreadful 4-8-3 start that little was left for the playoffs.

As one of the elite teams in MLS this season, the Sounders have known for months that the playoffs were in their future, barring catastrophe, which resulted in a different mentality.

"This year we're at a little bit better place," said Keller.

Hanauer described the team as "solid, consistent, resilient, impressive" for pretty much the whole season.

"Now we'll see if we're able to translate that into the confidence, experience and ability to make it through our first playoff round," he said.

James Riley said higher expectations for this year, a message that has been reiterated since the start of training camp, hit home after winning a third straight U.S. Open Cup.

"It wasn't as big of a celebration as the previous two years," the defender said. "Guys were kind of like, 'All right. We still have other goals and aspirations for this season.' "

The Sounders have played a league-leading 46 games in all competitions — MLS (34), CCL (8) and Open Cup (4) — and fulfilling their seasonlong, title-winning objectives will come down to just a few.

When it comes to motivation, however, you can check that off, too.

"We've got more work to do," Schmid said. "We've got four more games to play."

Notes

• Sounders FC will play the first leg of the conference semifinals on the road at 7 p.m. Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium. Seattle hosts RSL in the second leg Nov. 2.; kickoff time hasn't been determined. Tickets for the home game go on sale at 10 a.m. Monday.

Pat Noonan scored twice and Lamar Neagle also tallied, but Sounders FC's reserves blew a three-goal lead in a 3-3 tie Sunday against Chivas USA. Seattle finished atop the MLS Reserve League West Division with an 8-1-1 record.

Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or jmayers@seattletimes.com

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