The Sounders had six starters in the lineup against Houston last week that weren't on the field for last year's MLS Cup championship match in Toronto. Despite the new faces, they say last year's experience in front of a hostile crowd gives them an edge heading into next Saturday's rematch
Things have changed for Jordan Morris and the Sounders over the past year since they went in to Toronto and shocked everybody by winning their first MLS Cup championship.
Morris spent his second season battling injuries and hadn’t played since September when the Sounders got him in to the final 14 minutes of the Western Conference title win over the Houston Dynamo. Partly due to his and other injuries, more than half the starting 11 for the Sounders in that Houston match weren’t part of last year’s championship stunner on penalty kicks against Toronto FC.
But despite the new faces, Morris feels the experience the remainder of the squad picked up last December gives it an edge heading back to BMO Field for a rematch in what will again be hostile conditions.
“Obviously, the new faces have done unbelievably well for us,’’ Morris said Sunday after the team’s first training session since clinching a return to the final. “They are ready to go and have faced environments like that before. So, it’s nothing new.’’
As for the rest of the team: “We’ve been there last year, so we know what to expect a little bit. And they (Toronto) are going to be out for some revenge and wanting to win. And they’re a very good team.’’
Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney raised some eyebrows Friday by suggesting the Sounders might not be ready for the “intensity’’ of an MLS Cup final. Vanney told reporters the top five MLS teams were in the Eastern Conference and that the intensity of his team’s playoff rounds were of a level the Sounders may not have experienced yet.
On Sunday, Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, while praising MLS Coach of the Year winner Vanney, laughed off the suggestion his team might not be ready.
“You could say the pressure is on them,’’ Schmetzer said. “There’s no pressure on us. They’re at home…If he’s saying that to get his guys traction, somehow, some way, that’s his business. Greg’s a good guy and a good coach.’’
Schmetzer also said he has nothing against Vanney’s quote and won’t be using it as locker room bulletin board material.’’
“If you guys think, or anybody thinks that we need locker room blackboard material, then you guys are sadly mistaken,’’ he said. “Because my team is ready to go. I don’t need to put that up on the board.’’
And Schmetzer agrees the experience gained playing the final in the exact same locale a year ago helps this year’s preparation.
“We went through all the travel arrangements and everything that we did last year, we learned from that logistically,’’ Schmetzer said. “And then on the field, yes, knowing we can come in there and put on a strong performance, all of those things help. And then you add to that some of the little smaller nuances.’’
Those nuances Schmetzer is talking about are all the new faces that have the Sounders taking a much more formidable and balanced roster to Toronto than the defensive-minded one that failed to register a shot on goal in last year’s title game.
A year ago, the Sounders appeared duct-taped together as they faced the favored “Reds” with a battered and bruised lineup. This time, the team is as healthy as it’s been all year, just obliterated Houston by a 5-0 aggregate score and also hasn’t been scored on in six games and a league record 647 playoff minutes dating back to last season.
The new faces that weren’t part of last year’s title run include Morris’ replacement up top, Will Bruin, along with midfielders Victor Rodriguez, Gustav Svensson, right back Kelvin Leerdam and left back Nouhou. Perhaps the biggest difference is that star forward Clint Dempsey also wasn’t on the field a year ago, having missed the entire postseason with an irregular heartbeat.
A seventh player who wasn’t in last year’s match, midfielder Harry Shipp, came off the bench in the second half last week against Houston and made a terrific pass that sent Bruin in alone for the final goal of a 3-0 win. Shipp had played sparingly the season’s final months – limited in large part by a cast on a broken hand – but contributed in both Houston games and has fresh legs off the bench that were in short supply for the team a year ago.
“In practice, I felt good and I felt like once I got a chance, I was going to play well,’’ Shipp said. “I’m feeling really good at this moment in time.’’
Shipp watched the MLS Cup on TV a year ago, his Montreal Impact squad eliminated by Toronto in the conference final.
“I was probably rooting for Seattle because I was still on Montreal and Toronto was a rival,’’ Shipp said. “But it’s crazy now coming full circle and getting the chance to do this. I feel like the game might have not been the prettiest last year…but I think now, we’re playing well and have a chance to go in there, and hopefully control tempo and really dictate the game.’’