TORONTO — “We’ve done things the hard way this year,” said Brad Evans after Saturday night’s MLS Cup final.
And how. The Seattle Sounders battled Toronto FC to a scoreless draw before beating the hosts on penalty kicks, absorbing endless pressure without ever losing composure. They won the title the same way they made the playoffs: not just the hard way, but just about the hardest way imaginable.
The Sounders took just three shots on the night, the fewest in MLS Cup history despite having a half-hour of extra time. They were also the first team in the history of the final to finish a match without putting a shot on target. And still, there they were late Saturday night: outshot 19-3, yet drenched in Champagne and beer.
“(Toronto) played really well,” said second-year midfielder Cristian Roldan. “I thought they dominated us, to be honest. And for us to stick to our game plan and fight through everything, it’s just characteristic of the team that we have.”
Seattle also lost two players to injury in the second half. Midfielder Erik Friberg left with a calf strain in the 66th minute, while forward Nelson Valdez departed in the 73rd minute with what the team called “general lower body cramping.” Roldan and midfield partner Osvaldo Alonso both battled cramps of their own down the stretch. And the Sounders never would have reached penalty kicks if goalkeeper Stefan Frei hadn’t delivered a simply stunning save on a Jozy Altidore header in extra time.
“Maybe the best save I’ve ever seen live,” said Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer after the match.
All of this after completing the most improbable turnaround in league history to make the playoffs in the first place.
A 3-0 road loss to Sporting Kansas City on July 24 dropped the Sounders into ninth place in the 10 team Western Conference, a full 10 points below the so-called red line for the sixth and final conference playoff spot. And the scoreline told only part of the story. The Sounders delivered a listless effort throughout, mustering their first shot in the 88th minute to narrowly avoid becoming the first team in league history to finish a game without attempting a shot. Head coach Sigi Schmid blamed the heat; Evans, long considered a Schmid loyalist, said Sporting KC had a better game plan. The Sounders were shut out for the sixth time in 11 games, and lost for the fifth time in seven games. Only 14 matches remained in a 34-game season.
The club parted ways with Schmid — the only coach the club had ever known — two days later, naming Seattle native and longtime assistant Brian Schmetzer interim head coach. Schmetzer quickly identified a preferred formation and lineup and stuck with them. He also implemented a more aggressive style that his players seemed to relish. That same week the club announced the signing of designated player Nicolas Lodeiro, who instantly sparked a moribund attack while providing relentless energy across the field. The Sounders not only qualified for the playoffs, but shot all the way to fourth place in the conference despite losing Clint Dempsey to an irregular heartbeat for the remainder of the season (at least) in late August.
“It just shows that in this league, anything can happen,” Hanauer said on Saturday night. “Make a midseason run and peak at the right time. What I’m most proud of — and Sigi has talked about it in the past as well — is consistency. We put ourselves in a position to win it eight years in a row, and this is our year.”
What is clear, as cheesy as it might sound, is that something special in the locker room provided both the fuel for the regular-season turnaround and the determination to survive Toronto’s onslaught on Saturday night.
Chad Marshall — a 13-year MLS veteran, three-time MLS Defender of the Year, and now two-time MLS Cup champion — has repeatedly said the 2016 Sounders have the best locker room he’s ever seen.
“It’s just a brotherhood,” he explained Saturday night. “Everyone loves each other. And that translates onto the field. You want to play for the guy next to you. And no one wants to let (anyone) down.”
Asked what he wanted fans to remember about this Sounders team, center back Zach Scott echoed Marshall’s sentiments.
“I just hope they remember a group of guys that just really cared about each other,” he said, “and weren’t willing to give up no matter what the odds were.”
Scott, one of three original Sounders who played in the club’s inaugural 2009 season, is known around Seattle as Mr. Sounder. A 36-year-old family man who won minor-league championships with the Sounders before they joined MLS, he announced his retirement late in the regular season.
“My career is one that’s going to be forgotten,” he said when asked how it felt to retire a champion. “But the Sounders are a club that’s going to be around hopefully forever, just continuing to win trophies. So if I could be a small part of that, then I’m proud of that. But in the end I’m more proud of the guys in here, for putting in the effort, for just showing the world that we could do something unbelievable.”