By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Dec 12, 2016) US Soccer Players – It was an MLS Cup final between two of the best playoff teams in the league. The championship game between Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders FC did have its moments, but a game for the ages it was not. Typical of championships, we didn’t see the best versions of these teams at BMO Field. What we did get after 120 minutes and penalties was Seattle lifting the Cup.
All credit to the Sounders, but it was not the ideal conclusion for Major League Soccer’s marquee event. It’s tough to decide a championship from the penalty spot. The better story for any game is having it decided from the run of play. A Jozy Altidore show of strength. A Jordan Morris breakaway. None of that happened.
Toronto and Seattle matched up well, perhaps too well. This became a game of absorption by the Seattle defense. With the offense stalled, that became the difference. By the 120th minute, the penalties seemed like an open opportunity for either team. It’s tough to make the claim that Seattle’s road to eventual victory converted potential soccer fans.
Both Seattle and Toronto had similar seasons, almost typical of past MLS Cup winners. With little weight given to the regular season, the playoffs are what matter in this league. Without getting into the merits of whether that’s a fair system or not, it is the reality all teams face. The regular season isn’t enough. A team has to be able to manage the playoffs. Toronto and Seattle did that for the past few weeks. They got hot at the right time and used home field to their advantage. Not a surprise given the great fan bases of both franchises.
The Sounders winning MLS Cup had been years in the making. This version might have been unlikely for a long stretch of the season, but it was the same recipe. Seattle’s front office and coaching staff work closely. They know what should work. The problem is waiting for that payoff. In a year that wasn’t supposed to be theirs, winning on penalties is almost appropriate.
Seattle ground out results in 2016, the only way to turn a woeful season around. Their previous shows of strength ended with playoff failure. This time, they did enough to get themselves a fair shot. Make that shots, needing extra penalties to see out their championship season.
Watching the Seattle players celebrate with the trophy amid a sea of confetti, it’s worth remembering that this was a team that got off to the worst start in franchise history. Despite the preseason hype, the team lost its first three games and had a 6-12-2 record after 20 matches. At that point, the team was languishing near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. That was it for Sigi Schmid, losing the head coaching job he’d had since the expansion season.
Somehow, under interim coach and Schmid’s assistant Brad Schmetzer, a turnaround happened. Seattle used a designated player spot on Nicolas Lodeiro. Rebuilding in July, they came up with ways to win games in MLS. That included quickly figuring out away past the season ending injury to Clint Dempsey.
“They’ve been resilient for a long time. I think at the beginning of the year, in preseason, we knew we had a good team, a veteran team,” Schmetzer told reporters after the game, sipping a beer between questions, while scribbling notes. “I think the base was always there. (The players) found a way to persevere during tough situations.”
The team may have won the title in the freezing Canadian weather, but it was the hot days of August that marked the turning point for this team. Schmetzer put together the right pieces and momentum guided them to the postseason. Lodeiro, an experienced playmaker who had played with Boca Juniors of Argentina, made an immediate impact with his sharp passing. Seattle played the Los Angeles Galaxy to a 1-1 draw on July 31. In his first nine games, Lodeiro recorded three goals and eight assists. In the process, Morris became one of the league’s most-dangerous attacking players. Seattle went 5-1-3 and was back in contention for a playoff spot.
“It was a tough first half of the season, but we always believed and pushed out the outside noise,” Morris recalled.
The Sounders became hot at just the right time. They went 3-1-1 in the final month of the regular season to finish fourth in the Western Conference. Like their dearest rivals Portland last season, Seattle put together a run that led into the playoffs.
The rest is very recent history. Seattle swept aside three legitimate title contenders in the postseason. Sporting KC, Supporters’ Shield winners FC Dallas, and the Colorado Rapids. That meant an MLS Cup final and a chance. Seattle in 2016 knows how to take them.
“We got hot at the right time,” said Morris. “You see that a lot in MLS.”
Based in New York City, Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He covers all topics relating to American soccer, including Major League Soccer. He has covered the last two World Cups for the site. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Clemente began writing for our site in July 2007. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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