Thursday’s match turned into a party and Seattle is primed to defend its first MLS Cup.
All those months ago, when the MLS season was in its infancy, Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey characterized the 2017 season as a referendum for the Sounders.
Would Seattle’s MLS Cup the previous year be regarded, in his words, as “kind of fluky and lucky”? Or would the Sounders show that they were a team that could sustain success “and take it to the next level,” he pondered. The next 10 months would tell the story.
On Thursday, with the din of a boisterous, buoyant, near-sellout crowd at CenturyLink Field providing a chorus of approval, the Sounders placed an exclamation point on a season that has knocked any notion of flukiness out of the equation. And the apex of the next level — a second straight title — is squarely within their sights.
Sounders FC @ Toronto, Saturday Dec. 9, 1 p.m., ESPN
These Sounders, a revelation since Brian Schmetzer took over as coach in the darkest and dreariest days of the ’16 season, are headed back to the MLS Cup, now fully established as a bona fide powerhouse.
“I think it comes down to the players just want it,” Schmetzer said afterward, redolent of champagne as he met with the media. “I think they want another championship.”
Taking an aggressor’s role despite the comfort of a two-goal lead, the Sounders scored first to knock the will out of the Houston Dynamo, and then added two more second-half goals to end all doubt. The 3-0 victory and 5-0 aggregate margin — the shutout was their sixth straight — gives them a surge of momentum at just the right time.
They are now headed for a championship rematch with Toronto FC, the MLS’s best club this year and primed to avenge last season, when the Sounders went without a shot on goal in regulation and overtime during the title match yet prevailed on penalty kicks.
“I feel when you have this kind of talent on a team, you don’t want to waste opportunities, so we have a tremendous opportunity in front of us,” said veteran Chad Marshall. “Obviously, we’re going to play against a great team, at their place, but hopefully we can do what needs to be done to bring another championship to Seattle.”
That victory in Toronto was a heady moment for the Sounders franchise and validated a long stretch for Seattle as arguably America’s most rabid soccer city, yet without a title to show for it. On Thursday, they had the added bonus of celebrating a conference title at home on a night that quickly turned into a coronation. It was an interaction they clearly savored.
“The best part of my evening — well, outside of the three goals — was when Ozzie (midfielder Osvaldo Alonso) took the trophy up to the fans, and those fans stayed and they cheered every single player that raised the Cup,’’ Schmetzer said. “That is the example that I keep talking about. The relationship between the fans and the players is what makes it so special.”
Every minute that went by without a Houston goal was a victory of sorts for the Sounders, who had to be expecting a furious attack from the Dynamo on the basis of their road-goal deficit. But Seattle that got the vital first score, a nifty finish by Victor Rodriguez in the 23rd minute off a deft feed by Will Bruin.
You could practically see the life seep out of Houston, and then even more rapidly when goalie Stefan Frei — back after missing the series opener with a hamstring injury — went horizontal to stop two golden scoring opportunities by Houston’s Tomas Martinez. It was reminiscent of Frei’s virtuoso display in last year’s Cup final, one he will hope to replicate next week.
Up 3-0 in aggregate heading into the second half, it was, fittingly, Clint Dempsey who supplied the coup de grace with a goal in the 57th minute on a gorgeous cross by Joevin Jones. At that point, it was all over except for the confetti. A goal by Bruin in the 72nd minute was gratuitous yet glorious for the Sounders, the soccer equivalent of piling on.
While the Sounders didn’t face the same adversity this year as last, when they sat in ninth place when Sigi Schmid was fired in late July, followed by the extended absence of Dempsey, it hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride, either. Brad Evans, Roman Torres and Marshall all had long absences because of injury, and Jordan Morris, the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year, had been out since Sept. 10 before making his return late in Thursday’s game.
That they survived all that, plus all the attendant landmines that come with defending a title, is a tribute to the steady hand of Schmetzer, who is now 28-12-17 since he inherited a team mired at 6-12-2.
“At the beginning of the year, there was a little bit of a hangover, all that sort of stuff it came with,’’ Schmetzer said. “We had a motivated group, we had a veteran group, we had a team that during that long streak was able to manufacture points to get us into second, which was key.
“I know Dempsey is super, super motivated. I know Roman and Niko (Nicolas Lodeiro) and all the guys who were here last year, Ozzie, they’re super motivated. Joevin Jones, who is leaving us, he wants to end on a good note. We’ve got a crop of young guys like Cristian (Roldan) and Jordan and (Henry) Wingo and all those guys — they’ve been training well. So I think the group is ready to compete for another championship.”
It’s also a tribute to Lagerwey, who wisely resisted the emotional temptation to keep a title team intact and said goodbye to veteran players like Erik Friberg, Andreas Ivanschitz, Nelson Valdez, Tyrone Mears and Herculez Gomez. The additions, some of them under-the-radar and not necessarily heralded at the time — such as Nouhou, Kelvin Leerdam, Gustav Svensson and Bruin — have played significant roles in the Sounders’ surge to the title match.
It all came together Thursday on a night that had the potential to be incredibly nerve-racking, had Houston racked up an early goal. Instead, it turned into a party on the pitch until, finally, time expired as fans making up the second-largest playoff crowd in club history (45,298) held up their lighted cellphones, players hugged, and flags waved.
“At one point toward the end of the game, when all the lights went on, I almost wanted to just sit down and soak it all up,’’ Frei said. “Then I realized we were still playing a game.”
And what a joy ride of a game it turned out to be. If this season truly was a referendum on the Sounders’ staying power, the results are now indisputable.
Sounders victory march