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Originally published Wednesday, October 31, 2012 at 6:49 PM

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Three reasons the Sounders can advance in the playoffs, at last

Sounders FC's previous three playoff appearances have resulted in first-round exits. So what will be different this year?

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Five games.

Regardless of another successful MLS regular season, despite past disappointment in the playoffs, five games are all that stand between Sounders FC and winning a championship.

The playoffs are here. It's a whole new season.

"For us, it's like, 'OK, let's get it on,' " coach Sigi Schmid said.

Playoff success is the final hurdle for this young, yet accomplished franchise. Three years of postseason play has ended in three first-round exits.

And while calling it a black mark on their résumé is a bit harsh — only three MLS teams have even made the playoffs each of the past four years — the question remains:

Why is this year going to be different?

"I don't know it's going to be different," said general manager Adrian Hanauer. "I'd love to say I know it's going to be different because I had a dream about it or something, but it's hard work and there are a lot of good teams in this league."

"There is no magic formula," added Schmid. "It's a matter of us going out there, and we know what it takes. We've been through the experience, we've been through the disappointment, and the desire not to have that disappoint again has to be very strong."

Here are some reasons it might be different in 2012.

1. Starting strong

In three years, the Sounders have never had the lead in a playoff series.

That's especially relevant for this team, which hasn't lost in MLS when scoring first since 2010 (a stretch of 31 games).

In the playoffs in Year 1, Seattle didn't score at all in a defensive struggle against Houston — a series that went scoreless for 180 minutes before the Dynamo won in overtime. The next two years, against the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2010 and Real Salt Lake last year, the Sounders scored, but not before they were already down 3-0 on aggregate goals.

If there's any time to start fast, it's in Friday's series opener against RSL at CenturyLink Field, where the Sounders were a franchise-best 11-4-2 this season.

Opinions vary on the advantages of hosting the first leg or second leg, but many players like the idea of starting here.

"In my personal opinion, it's better to start at home," said midfielder Steve Zakuani, who has one of the team's three playoff goals. "This league is so tight that in the second leg, if you're coming from a deficit, it's very tough. Last year, we almost did it. Starting at home with our fans, the energy is here, the city is buzzing, the players are ready — I think it's a good matchup."

Ticket sales as of Wednesday were at approximately 30,500 with stadium capacity set for around 35,000. Motivation won't be hard to find.

"We have to think that if this is going to be our game at home, it could be our last game in front of our fans this year," midfielder Brad Evans said. "You never know."

2. Experience counts

Known often in the past for their youth, the Sounders may field a lineup Friday consisting of four players in their 30s and no one under the age of 25.

Those who came to Seattle early in their careers — Fredy Montero, Osvaldo Alonso and Evans, for example — have quickly turned into hardened veterans.

The front office has also filled in the roster with experienced players from all over the world:

• Austria goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, 31, has played in Europe and FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

• Swedish right back Adam Johansson, 30, was recently a part of his national team's World Cup qualifying campaign.

• German midfielder Christian Tiffert, 30, was one of the top playmakers in the German Bundesliga a couple of years ago.

• Other first-year players on the roster include forward Eddie Johnson (28, injured with an adductor strain), defender Marc Burch (28), and goalkeepers Marcus Hahnemann (40) and Andrew Weber (29).

"It's a more mature and diverse group," said defender Jeff Parke, another 30-year-old. "We've brought in some players who can really help us get over the hump and into the next round."

That maturity will be tested right away as the Sounders will likely be without Johnson, the team's leading scorer, for Friday's opener. Seattle had struggled last year to make up for the loss of injured midfielder Mauro Rosales in the playoffs.

"You've got to deal with adversity at any time," Evans said. "Each team is going to deal with it and it's about how you come together as a group, and it's how you kind of fight through it."

3. Intangibles and overdue luck

So what is Hanauer's gauge of the team heading into the playoffs?

"I think they want it as much as they've ever wanted it," he said.

And much of that motivation is personal. Evans said the team is driven to advance this postseason to prove to themselves, as much as anyone, that they can.

This year also marked the first time in franchise history Sounders FC didn't win a midseason trophy, as Seattle fell short in the 2011-12 CONCACAF Champions League, U.S. Open Cup and Cascadia Cup.

Add that disappointment to previous playoff exits, and "that pain is going to carry the organization through, I think," said Zakuani.

Of course, to become a champion also involves some measure of luck, particularly in what is always an unpredictable MLS postseason. Schmid, who has won two MLS Cups, said when the difference between teams is so close, particularly in a parity-driven league, "the ball has got to bounce right for you to win it sometimes."

"You look at the teams that have won it two of the last three years, they were teams that snuck in (the playoffs) at the very end," the coach said in reference to RSL in 2009 and Colorado the following year.

And considering the disparity between regular-season and playoff success, maybe the Sounders are due for a lucky bounce or two.

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

Playoff history
The Sounders are one of just three MLS teams to make the playoffs each of the past four seasons. Seattle, however, has yet to advance out of the first round.
Year Opponent First leg Second leg
2011 Real Salt Lake 0-3 2-0
2010 L.A. Galaxy 0-1 1-2
2009 Houston 0-0 0-1 (OT)

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