After yet another playoff exit, Seattle left to rue what might have been

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SEATTLE -- Despite losing in the MLS Cup semifinal moments earlier, Seattle Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid spoke steadily, albeit softly, to reporters in his post-match press conference. Unlike previous seasons, he said he felt Seattle played well in the playoffs and couldn’t have done much more to ensure victory over the LA Galaxy.

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“I’m really proud of our team. I’m proud of their effort. I’m proud of their fight to the very end,” he said. “[Winning the] Supporters’ Shield is nice. It’s great because it’s a reflection of the whole season -- it shows that we were the best team over the whole season -- but unfortunately, our league decides that the MLS Cup winner is the top team, and that’s a mountain that we haven’t climbed yet. I thought for sure this could be our year to climb that mountain, and I thought we were very close to it.”

Seattle won on Sunday, 2-1 over the visiting Galaxy, but lost the series on away goals. The Sounders couldn’t put one away a week earlier in Southern California, so Juninho’s one-touch effort on a seemingly botched corner kick in the 54th minute was enough to win it.

That means LA will host the final in its ninth appearance, looking for a fifth win that would surpass D.C. United for the most in league history. It will also be Landon Donovan’s final professional match, and the U.S. legend said he thought at halftime, down 2-0, that it could be the final 45 minutes of his career without a comeback.

“I wanted to make sure that, regardless of the outcome, that I put it all in,” Donovan said. “In the few minutes at halftime that I had time to ponder a little bit, I wanted to make sure this wasn’t it.”

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​After winning the Supporters’ Shield, Seattle was a favorite to end the Galaxy’s record bid, but the Sounders haven’t been able to put it together in the playoffs, regardless of regular-season outcome. Two years ago it was the Galaxy, by the same score and in the same building, that ended Seattle’s season after a 3-0 Sounders loss in the first leg. In 2011, a different 3-0 loss buried Seattle.

“Last year, obviously, we didn’t finish well,” Schmid said. “This year, I think we acquitted ourselves well in the playoffs, and we acquitted ourselves well in this series.”

With the U.S. Open Cup an Supporters' Shield titles in 2014, the team was 180 minutes away from winning the first treble in league history before Sunday’s match. The team barely celebrated their Supporters’ Shield victory over LA, despite a couple players admitting it felt like more of a league championship than an MLS Cup.

“It would be more of a disappointment if we didn’t win the Open Cup and Supporters’ Shield,” Brad Evans said Sunday. Evans, a 2008 MLS Cup winner with Schmid’s Columbus Crew, put Seattle up 1-0 with a 26th-minute tap-in.

By the time reporters filed into the locker room on Sunday, most of the Sounders were gone. Those who remained spoke evenly about their season while lamenting the win that felt like a loss in the final game.

“Once you win Supporters’ Shield, you’re buzzing, and then you kind of enter the playoffs, and that’s totally negated,” Evans said. “It just becomes a completely different tournament, and that’s the reality of it. … Does it take away from what we accomplished this year? No. It was a great season.”

Schmid’s reaction to the topic told a slightly different story. The only time the Seattle manager became slightly emotional in his press conference was in speaking about the Sounders’ fans and the 46,758 of them that bought a ticket to Sunday’s match, a team playoff record.

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​“There’s nothing I want to do more than to bring an MLS Cup to the city of Seattle,” he said, his voice catching before he added, “I just say thank you, and we’re sorry because we want to win it for them. We really do.”

For Seattle fans who have endured playoff disappointment in each of the franchise’s six seasons, one of three teams along with LA and Real Salt Lake to make the postseason in each of those years, the wait stretches at least another 12 months.

However, the loss in 2014 felt different from the past half-dozen. The team is undisputedly getting closer to that final prize, and its core group of players returning next year should be its best yet.

One of those vital pieces, Clint Dempsey, was the last Seattle player off the field on Sunday. He circled the entire field with a slow walk as the Galaxy prepared to celebrate on the stage erected at midfield for the trophy presentation, lingering to clap his appreciation for each remaining pocket of supporters.

Before the Galaxy lifted the conference trophy on his home field, Dempsey turned his back and walked down the tunnel. Neither he nor his teammates have time to look back, as 2015 preseason training opens in less than two months.