In the calm of Sunday morning, Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer took time to gather his thoughts.
The magnitude of the day was never lost on the Nathan Hale High School graduate. Schmetzer grew up within the Sounders organization, first as a player and then coach as it evolved through various minor leagues, becoming an MLS franchise in 2009. Sunday was Schmetzer and the Sounders’ third MLS Cup final in the past four years. Remarkable, but the same could be said about their opponent, Toronto FC, which split the 2016 and 2017 championships with Seattle.
Respect had to be paid. Schmetzer did so by scribbling some notes on a sheet of paper for a postmatch speech should his team lose. But it was the flip side that took the spotlight.
Revering his opponent, Schmetzer also contrived a way to defeat the Reds, his players struggling, yet eventually executing the plan to win the Cup with a 3-1 victory before 69,274 fans at CenturyLink Field.
“The players and the fans deserve this,” Schmetzer said in his postgame news conference as he tried to fight back tears.
The match played out much like the Sounders’ season. There was a euphoric start as a historic crowd energized the team from the moment the players first stepped out on the turf for warmups. Then there was a grimy opening half in which the defense had to pull the Sounders through pressure from Toronto’s better offensive attack.
The emotions broke in the second half. Seattle defender Kelvin Leerdam, after a pass from forward Raul Ruidiaz, rifled a shot that deflected off Justin Morrow’s knee for a Toronto own goal in the 57th minute. Schmetzer made his first substitution in the 60th minute, putting another offensive attacker, midfielder Victor Rodriguez, in the match for left back Brad Smith.
Rodriguez, who played just 17 regular-season matches due to a hamstring injury and concussion, gave the Sounders some cushion with a goal in the 76th minute. Ruidiaz sent the stadium into a frenzy with the third score in the 90th minute.
Reds forward Jozy Altidore scored in stoppage time, as Schmetzer thought the star player might do at some point when visualizing the match Sunday morning. Those thoughts just didn’t matter, thanks to his players.
“Our team, our club, we don’t operate in the realm of fear,” Schmetzer said in his prepared winning statement. He’s the fifth MLS coach to win multiple league championships.
“We address problems. We overcome. We try and be better at everything that we do,” he continued. “We respect our opponents, but we don’t have any fear.”
The Sounders’ defense in the opening half epitomized the lack of fear. Schmetzer reinserted veteran Roman Torres into the starting lineup over MLS newcomer Xavier Arreaga, the former healed from a hamstring injury that pushed him to the bench in the Western Conference championship victory against Los Angeles FC.
Torres, whose penalty kick in 2016 won Seattle its first MLS Cup, worked with Leerdam and Gustav Svensson to protect the final third of the field as Reds midfielder Jonathan Osorio worked to create chances, teammate Nicolas Benezet getting two shots on target. Toronto had possession of the ball for 65.1% of the first half.
“Any cross, any long ball coming into the box, he owned,” said former Sounders defender Chad Marshall, who was forced to retire in May due to injuries, which moved Torres into the starting lineup. “It was what you expect from Roman in this big moment. He stepped up like he did in 2016 MLS Cup. He’s the man.”
Schmetzer designed two changes to the offensive scheme at halftime — one that would have flipped forward Jordan Morris with midfielder Joevin Jones on the wings — to help break the scoreless tie.
Before the changes could be made, Leerdam ignited the first goal, and the original plan stayed in place.
Leerdam paused on the celebration because of a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) review to determine if he was offside.
“With VAR, you never know,” Leerdam said. “That was the goal we needed to be more confident because we didn’t play a good game. We needed everybody to keep a clean sheet in the first half to give us a chance. Luckily, Victor came in and killed the game. That took away a lot of spirit for Toronto.”
The Reds also didn’t stop pressing Seattle, but the scores opened up space for the Sounders to display their true selves despite possessing the ball for only 35% of the game.
The goals were Seattle’s first in an MLS championship game. It resulted in an MLS Cup that Schmetzer thought his team and native city deserved to celebrate.
“This maybe will go all week,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said on the field after the victory as a still mostly full stadium chanted and celebrated around him.