TUKWILA, Wash. — “Finally” is a much-abused word these days. Any transfer signing that takes more than five minutes to proceed from rumor to signed contract is finally consummated, the election is finally over, the playoffs finally underway, the whistle finally blows.
Osvaldo Alonso, though, is 90 minutes away from what would be a heartily deserved “finally.” One of three remaining original Sounders (the others are team captain Brad Evans and center back Zach Scott, retiring after the season), he has patrolled the heart of CenturyLink Field for eight seasons, cleaning up Zone 14 messes and spraying passes forward as well as anyone in MLS. And he has helped the Sounders reach the playoffs in each of those eight campaigns, a feat matched only by the LA Galaxy.
Yet all of those trips to the playoffs — a two-term presidential administration’s worth — failed to yield even a trip to the league final, let alone an actual MLS Cup trophy. Championship hopes probably morphed into championship expectations and, ultimately, burdens a little too quickly, to be fair. As if large crowds and a willingness to spend money in a cap-restricted league meant the playoffs should be a stroll through the park. Ask Toronto FC or the New York Red Bulls how that works out.
In any event, the Sounders have never been closer than they are now, heading into the second leg of the Western Conference finals with a 2-1 lead over the Colorado Rapids. While this is the third time in five years the Sounders have advanced to the conference finals, it is the first time they will enter the second leg with a lead, the first time they are not facing the vaunted Galaxy and their star-studded roster, championship pedigree, and cupboard stuffed with trophies.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Alonso said after training on Friday. “It’s time to do it. We have to fight, and play for each other, to get the cup.”
It will not be the easiest hurdle. The Rapids allowed by far the fewest goals in the league this year (32), and were undefeated at home, content to grind down opponents in the thin Colorado air while only occasionally prodding for an opportunistic goal through Designated Player Shkelzen Gashi.
The Rapids went into the second leg of the conference semifinals trailing the LA Galaxy 1-0, without even the benefit of a tie-breaking away goal, and still managed to find the equalizer and dispatch the Galaxy in penalties.
It’s why, with a valuable away goal under their belt, the Rapids oozed confidence after the match on Tuesday, despite giving up a lead and eventually losing the match.
The Sounders, meanwhile, took a much more comfortable 3-0 lead into the second leg of the conference semifinal against Dallas, and at times seemed to be holding on for dear life, losing 2-1 but holding on for a 4-2 aggregate win. It’s an experience from which they have learned, according to Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer.
“We tried to come out and actually play,” Schmetzer said about the second leg against Dallas. “But Oscar [Pareja, FC Dallas head coach] had a game plan, they pinned us back a little bit, obviously they were hyped up. So, we’ve learned from that. We’ve learned from that. We’ll be ready.”
“The object [on Sunday] for us is to keep a clean sheet,” Schmetzer said Friday. “And to score a goal, or two goals, or win the game. That’s always the goal.”
The 2016 MLS playoffs simply refuse to follow script. The New York Red Bulls and NYC FC are hazy memories, dispatched before the interminable international break, while fellow heavyweight Toronto FC heads into the second leg of the conference finals trailing, 3-2.
Out west, the LA Galaxy were not only knocked off by the upstart and decidedly unsexy Colorado Rapids, but find themselves down a head coach and two Designated Players, the league’s marquee brand suddenly stripped bare of brand identity. What’s a galaxy without stars, what is a team without an Arena?
FC Dallas tore through much of the regular season like a homegrown Hunt family response to glamorous spending sprees of money old and new. And yet the Hunts and Oscar Pareja, their brilliant head coach, helplessly watched Fabian Castillo walk away midsummer, saw the atomic Mauro Diaz rendered inert by a ruptured achilles tendon, and sputtered out in the semifinals a husk of the team once favored to pull down the first domestic treble in league history.
That leaves the most far-fetched story line of all: the Rapids and Seattle Sounders contending for the right to represent the Western Conference in MLS Cup. The Rapids finished dead last in the conference just a year ago. They managed but two wins in 31 matches from July of 2014 to June of 2015, enduring an 18-game winless streak spanning parts of both seasons in the process. This history is not old.
The Sounders, meanwhile, were done and dusted over the summer, leading to the firing of Sigi Schmid. Clint Dempsey was also soon gone, out for the season due to heart issues. But here they are, several months later, looking to push towards the team’s first MLS Cup.
“This is a final for us. The team understands that this is a final,” Schmetzer said. “What happens in the next game, if we have a next game, those will come, but we’re treating this like a final.”