It’s been a strange ride for the club that went from next-to-last place, and the firing of a coach and the loss of a superstar, to champions of Major League Soccer.
TORONTO — Minutes before the MLS Cup final began on a frigid and soon-to-be legendary night, Toronto FC supporters unveiled their tifo, a giant banner that proclaimed, “Nothing is more powerful than a club whose time has come.”
They were speaking, of course, of their own team, which had persevered through some brutal seasons to end up perched on the verge of a title. But instead it proved prophetic for their opponent, the Seattle Sounders, who hoisted the Cup for the first time to cap a wild season that defies a tidy characterization.
It was both heartbreaking and exhilarating, one that once appeared dysfunctional but wound up with Seattle in possession of the ultimate prize. Seemingly destined for a housecleaning and a re-examination of their team-building philosophy, the Sounders somehow transformed into a team of destiny, and did it without the coach, and superstar, they started with.
“One of the things that changed in midseason was our culture,’’ general manager Garth Lagerwey said.
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In the end, the Sounders were indeed a team whose time had come, a twist of fate that had powerful poignancy both in and out of a locker room that already reeked of Champagne and beer by the time the media entered it.
Alan Hinton, who is the resident caretaker of Sounders history dating to their nascent NASL days of the early 1980s, hearkened back to John Best, the team’s original coach in 1974, as the link to current coach Brian Schmetzer.
“John was the first face of the original franchise, and they built it up on that, because he was a good-looking guy,’’ Hinton explained after the match. “John Best was from Liverpool in England. Brian Schmetzer is from Seattle, Washington, from Lake City.
“He’ll be the face of the franchise for many years to come. It’s a remarkable story for a coach who turned things around, and he loved his players, and now we all love him. I drafted him and I felt really guilty for a long time, and the guilt is gone tonight. Because I drafted him out of high school and stopped him from going to college, and I felt really bad about that for a lot of years.
“I don’t feel very bad anymore. In fact, I’m very happy because he went to the University of Life, and the University of Soccer.”
Though Sounders’ fans can’t really label themselves “long-suffering” in a season when the Cubs finally won a World Series after 108 years — 100 years longer than the current incarnation of the Sounders has been waiting for the MLS Cup — there is a historical continuum to the franchise that dates back more than 40 years.
Schmetzer was ruminating about that earlier in the week when he mentioned the franchise’s pioneers such as Hinton and Jimmy Gabriel — with a heartfelt nod to his predecessor, Sigi Schmid, a witness on Saturday from the broadcast booth to the title he spent 7½ years pursuing.
But it was Schmetzer who finished the job in the most remarkable midseason turnaround this town has seen since Lenny Wilkens transformed the Sonics in 1977. Lagerwey neatly laid out the marching orders Schmetzer was given when he replaced Schmid in late July, the Sounders buried in next-to-last place at 6-12-2.
“We gave him a more or less impossible task. We said, look, we’re going to make you the interim coach; you’ve spent seven years waiting for this, you’ve really earned it. And by the way, all you have to do is double the team’s output from one point a game to two points a game. Good luck. You’ve got 14 games. And he did it.”
No one has been more intertwined with the Sounders of this generation than Adrian Hanauer, who owned them in their USL days. He was instrumental in obtaining the MLS expansion franchise, and served as their initial general manager. Hanauer has lamented the difficulty of this season, and the strain that came with it, but that was melting away as he was dragged by Sounders players into their locker-room celebration for a beer bath.
“Obviously, it’s a long time coming,’’ Hanauer said. “We talked earlier this year about creating moments, enriching lives and unifying through soccer. It’s all about the fans. Joe (co-owner Joe Roth) and I and the owners think of it as we’re stewards of this franchise. It’s really all for the fans. The fact we can bring an MLS cup home to them is really special.
As he spoke in the raucous locker room, where earlier a robust version of “Jingle Bells” could be heard, Hanauer stood on the periphery of the players who not only helped bring the cup home, but were chugging from it.
There were the three originals, Zach Scott, Brad Evans and Osvaldo Alonso, each with a powerful story.
For Scott, it was the final game of his career, as he long ago announced his retirement and went out in ultimate fashion. Alonso gutted his way through a knee injury that required eight painkilling injections to help make that possible, four before the game and four at halftime, and did a stellar job defending Sebastian Giovinco. Evans, sidelined recently with a sprained ankle, made a late appearance in what might have been his last Sounders match, then started the penalty-kick shootout with a crucial goal that sent them on their way to victory.
There were Chad Marshall and Roman Torres, so vital in keeping Jozy Altidore from scoring, a task that required them to throw their bodies around without fear of the consequences. And, of course, there was goalie Stefan Frei, who as the last line of defense kept the game scoreless even when Altidore seemed on the verge of a decisive goal. Frei’s lunging tip of Altidore’s shot will be the everlasting image of this game, and this title.
Afterward, Schmetzer praised them all, right down to the reserves who never saw a sniff of game action. From top to bottom, from the past to the present, the Sounders on Saturday night were a team whose time had come.