Stefan Frei confessed that Sunday’s match was particularly difficult to prepare for. Various scenarios ran through the Sounders goalkeeper’s head, and not all were agreeable.
He knew that reaching the grandest stage can lead to an unforgettable stumble, and the fear of failure began to occupy space in his mind.
“There was a lot of added pressure because I wanted this so bad for our fans.” Frei said. “Yes, you can be the first ones to make history at home, but you can also be on a team that loses at home for the first time.”
Never before had the Sounders hosted an MLS Cup, the game that decides the champions of Major League Soccer. Never before had a soccer match of this magnitude been played in the Emerald City.
But all those jitters Frei felt eventually made way for joy. For soccer fans in this town, Sunday was the stuff of dreams.
With a 3-1 victory over Toronto FC, the Sounders didn’t just win their second MLS title — they culminated four and a half decades of history. All the previous iterations of the franchise, all the legends that passed through Seattle — they led to this moment.
Nov. 10, 2019, marked the high point for a team that played its first game 45 years ago. It may still be the high point 45 years from today.
No doubt the Sounders had a notable track record before this season started. They won the MLS Cup in Toronto in 2016, lost in the final the next year, and have reached the playoffs in 11 straight seasons.
But to earn a chance to host MLS’s premier event? To bulldoze through their postseason opponents as forcefully as they did? To win a trophy in front of 69,274 fans — the most for any sporting event in CenturyLink Field’s history? That’s what had Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer on the brink of tears after the game.
“They (the players) never quit. The fans never stopped believing. So I am very very happy for the city and the fans,” Schmetzer said.
But there was a point when it looked as if the Sounders’ day may end in grief instead of glee. They were scoreless in the first half and looked disjointed throughout those 45 minutes.
The shots on goal were scarce. The home-field advantage seemed nonexistent.
Then, Kelvin Leerdam kicked a ball that deflected off Toronto defender Justin Morrow and into the net in the 57th minute.
It was perhaps the flukiest goal in MLS Cup history, but it awakened CenturyLink Field and enlivened the Sounders. A goal from Victor Rodriguez followed 19 minutes later, and then one from Raul Ruidiaz in the 90th to put Seattle up, 3-0. That one essentially sealed the match, and you could hear the cheers from Tacoma.
“If we played this game in Toronto, we would have lost,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said when asked about the crowd support. “But with our fans, the ball bouncing our way at home, we won this game.”
The championship seemed far more satisfying to players than the one they captured three years earlier in Toronto, when the Sounders won on penalty kicks after going scoreless through regulation. The sense then was that Seattle lucked out against the better team, but that wasn’t the case Sunday.
And after their 3-1 semifinal win over LAFC — which had the best regular-season record in MLS history — the Sounders left little doubt as to who the kings of the league were.
“I think people were counting us out in the beginning of the playoffs and didn’t think we’d be here,” Sounders forward Jordan Morris said. “We wanted to prove we deserved to be here.”
After the game, Champagne flooded the Sounders’ locker room as goggle-faced players celebrated.
Midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro danced with the MLS Cup as Latin music blared from the speakers. The energy rivaled that of the scene in Pioneer Square before the game, when Macklemore performed in front of thousands of fans coming in for the game.
“Our fans never cease to surprise me,” Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer said. “This win’s for them. It’s for the city of Seattle.”
It’s likely that many of those fans were there for the event, not the game — folks who might not otherwise be interested in the Sounders were they not playing for a title.
But it’s also likely that those same folks left as newfound fans of the team. Despite Frei’s fears, the Sounders failed them not.