For Sounders midfielder Victor Rodriguez, the finish has become far more important than the start.
The team’s million-dollar bench player, who battled injuries all season and throughout his three-year Sounders tenure, came on in the second half Sunday and scored the biggest goal of his career. Rodriguez’s 76th-minute strike, on a nifty give-and-go passing display with Nicolas Lodeiro, proved the difference-maker in a 3-1 victory over Toronto FC and secured him MLS Cup Most Valuable Player honors.
“I think I deserved that,’’ Rodriguez said afterward. “Because I’ve worked a lot, every single day for this moment. It’s been some hard seasons for me, especially this year, there were a lot of injuries.
“I’m always working to not keep having that happen, but the (soccer) life is that. Sometimes, these things happen. So, now, I’m enjoying this moment a lot because I know I deserve that.’’
Imported from Spain in the second half of 2017, Rodriguez — the team’s third-highest-paid player at a reported $1.087 million this season — struggled to stay on the field from the outset. A knee injury carried over from late 2017 and derailed the first few months of his 2018 campaign as the Sounders struggled to find ways to keep him healthy more than a few consecutive matches.
When he battled injuries again this season, the option of using him only later in games ultimately prevailed. Rodriguez would make only 14 starts — same as last year — and tally a career-low 1,124 minutes for the Rave Green, but became a valuable late-season weapon off the bench.
He was warmed up and poised to enter the match Sunday when a shot from Seattle’s Kelvin Leerdam caromed off Toronto left back Justin Morrow and into the net in the 57th minute to open the scoring. Then, after replacing Brad Smith, Rodriguez worked some magic with Lodeiro and uncorked a blistering shot in the 76th minute that ticked off the left hand of diving goalkeeper Quentin Westberg and into the corner of the net.
Rodriguez credited coach Brian Schmetzer for making a decision to use him in a fashion that ultimately got the most out of his much-hyped abilities.
“I think I do well when I come onto the field,’’ Rodriguez said. “I want to play all the minutes possible, but in my situation … that was a little bit hard.’’
Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said Rodriguez’s goal definitively turned the tide in a game that had not gone the home team’s way in a scoreless first half.
“You saw on the second goal how festive it was, how loud it got with how incredible a goal it was,’’ Roldan said. “You saw a sense of ‘Hey, we might win this game.’ ’’
In a champagne-soaked locker room afterward, Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey stood off to the side and watched Rodriguez get doused by teammates. It was Lagerwey who brought Rodriguez here, along with midfielder Gustav Svensson — who assisted on Rodriguez’s goal Sunday and a Raul Ruidiaz clincher in the 90th minute — during the same 2017 season in which he began a quiet rebuild from an aging 2016 championship squad.
“Look, GMs make calls and you get some right and you get some wrong, guys are healthy and not healthy,’’ Lagerwey said. “But that aside, nobody worked harder than Victor, man. The guy literally played 40% of the minutes this year. And this is a guy that started every minute on every team in his life.
“You either put your head down in that circumstance and you pout, or you dig down. He had repeated injuries, and we couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him, so it would have been easy for him to quit, and he didn’t.’’
Lagerwey had confided even before the conference final he felt this edition was the best Sounders team ever in terms of seasoning and big-game ability. He repeated that Sunday but stopped short of calling it a “dynasty’’ when asked.
“What I think is, we’re not a footnote now,’’ he said. “We didn’t fluke our way to one title with no shots on goal in Toronto. We took them back here at home in the trilogy and we beat them. And our good players were better than their good players.’’
With one of those good players, Rodriguez, saving his best for the timeliest of finishes.
“I’m so happy for today, for the MLS Cup, for the MVP,’’ Rodriguez said. “I’m proud for all of my teammates because they helped me a lot during the hard moments. There were hard moments this season and last season, so we have to enjoy this moment because the Champagne is here and it’s an amazing feeling.’’