SEATTLE — For close to an hour on Sunday, it didn’t look like the Seattle Sounders had much of a chance of winning their second MLS Cup since 2016.
Then Toronto FC — which had utterly dominated yet another final between these sides despite playing this one front of almost 70,000 opposing fans — made the one fatal mistake the hosts needed to change their fortunes, gifting Seattle the crucial opening goal on the way to a stirring 3-1 victory.
“The reality is they were they were beating us in the first half in every aspect of the game, and they just couldn't score,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said of TFC, which ended the game with an astonishing 65 percent of the possession. “We just needed that one inch.”
It was enough to change everything. The pressure on the home side was immense beforehand, and it manifested itself on the field against a deep and battle-tested Reds team. The Sounders players felt it. So did head coach Brian Schmetzer and majority owner Adrian Hanauer, both Seattle natives who had been with the club since its days in the second tier, as well as general manager Garth Lagerwey. Early on, it threatened to swallow them all whole.
“Especially for [Hanauer] and Schmetz, guys who are lifers, to blow this in front of everyone you grew up with?” Lagerwey, beer in hand, cracked in the champagne-soaked Sounders locker room afterward. “The first time I hugged Adrian after the game it was like, ‘Can you believe we did this?’ It was just relief.”
The all-important opening goal didn’t come without controversy. TFC players were incensed that referee Alan Chapman didn’t whistle a foul on Roldan for a midfield challenge on Jonathan Osorio. The ball turned over and ended up on the foot defender Kelvin Leerdam in the box, who somehow was credited with the goal after unlucky Reds vet Justin Morrow accidentally steered the ball into his own net.
But that’s not to say that the Sounders — and Schmetzer — don’t deserve a heap of credit for the storybook ending. Seattle was far better in the second half thanks to a few pivotal tweaks made by their coach, not the least on which was the decision to switch Jordan Morris from the left wing to the right. It was just the latest example of Schmetzer showing his tactical chops in a do-or-die game; he did the same two weeks ago against record regular season points-getter LAFC to propel his team to the finale.
Schmetzer’s calm, fatherly demeanor also helped keep his players calm when they might otherwise have panicked.
“We tried to settle them down,” Schmetzer said. “Not ranting and raving or anything like that. It was more firm, just, OK, look, this is what we need to do and this is what we're going to try and change.”
The Sounders’ 2016 win in Toronto came just months after Schmetzer had replaced Sigi Schmid, the only coach the club had known since making the leap to MLS seven years prior. Schmid’s former top assistant talked up his former boss’s contribution to that triumph endlessly.
It was classy and accurate, but it also left some wondering if Schmetzer was the beneficiary of the foundation laid by Schmid — who died last year — rather than the reason for the club’s turnaround in the second half of the season. Those questions lingered when Seattle lost the rematch in Canada the following December.
This win? It’s all his.
”The one thing that Brian, among others, has been super successful at is not focusing on every individual battle but winning the war,” a beaming but emotionally drained Hanauer said Sunday. “I can't say enough about what he's been able to do.”
What he’s been able to do is take the Sounders back the pinnacle of MLS. The success of recent expansion juggernauts LAFC and Atlanta United — the only team ever to draw a larger attendance for an MLS Cup when they took home the hardware last year — had taken some of the shine off a club that for most of the first decade of its top-flight existence was the league’s undisputed standard bearer.
But no team in MLS, including Atlanta, boasts a stronger soccer history or more sophisticated fan base than Seattle’s. The Sounders are a worthy champion, even if they needed a little bit of luck on this day. Hanauer has spoken often about his ultimate goal of filling the stadium it shares with the NFL’s Seahawks not just for finals, but every week. The good vibes generated by Sunday’s spectacle certainly can’t hurt.
“I imagine that a lot of those people went home happy, realized how much fun this is,” Hanauer said. “Our job is to convert people who come to a game or two into die-hard soccer enthusiasts who want to bleed rave green like the rest of this family.”
He’s already won over celebrities such as Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Seattle rapper Macklemore, who performed during the traditional “march to the match” and looked as happy as any other Sounders fan when the trophy was presented to captain Nicolas Lodeiro.
“It’s a credit to Adrian. It's a credit to all the owners,” Lagerwey said. “Their money mattered. We spent money big on Lodeiro, we spent money big on [Raul] Ruidiaz, and those guys made the difference today.”
They did. Loderio set up Victor Rodriguez’s eventual game-winner that finally allowed a nervous crowd to relax. And after Jozy Altidore briefly pulled Toronto back within one, Ruidiaz’s stoppage-time tally restored the two-goal lead, blew the lid off the building and sealed another Cup—a trophy Seattle figures to compete for annually for many years to come.
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