TORONTO — For one of the few times in their nine-year playoff history, the Seattle Sounders were outworked, outplayed, and simply outclassed on Saturday afternoon.
Oh, and outscored.
The history books will show they suffered a 2-0 loss in the 2017 MLS Cup to host Toronto FC at a raucous BMO Field (once again packed and surging after so many lean years). But the scoreline fails to convey the extent to which the hosts — who have now made a compelling case for best team in league history — had their way with the defending champions, barreling through the Sounders with a startling lack of resistance.
The Sounders infamously failed to put a shot on goal over the course of 120 minutes when the sides met in last year’s final. It took them another 30 minutes to record a shot on target in this year’s final. When it was all over, they were outshot 22-7, one of many statistics that told the tale of a most lopsided match.
“The final game is what matters most, and we didn’t come to play,” said Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan after the game.
It was a disappointing loss for myriad reasons, but not least for the fact that the result will inevitably and necessarily overshadow one of the great performances in the club’s brief but accomplished MLS tenure.
Stefan Frei delivered one of the best saves in league history in last year’s MLS Cup, a mesmerizing effort so iconic that it inspired tattoos among the Sounders’ faithful.
The former Toronto FC goalkeeper was every bit as good on Saturday.
The final score was 2-0, but Toronto could have easily enjoyed a two goal lead inside the first 15 minutes. Outshot 12-1 in the first half alone, the Sounders had no business finding themselves in a scoreless draw at the break.
Frei delivered a pair of huge saves early, diving in the 10th minute for the first of many times to push away a a skipping, left-footed volley from Jonathan Osorio. Moments later Victor Vazquez released Sebastian Giovinco behind Seattle’s back line with a stunningly beautiful pass, but Frei charged and blocked the diminutive Italian’s shot for a corner kick.
His night was just getting started.
In the 23rd minute he again slapped away a bending, 15-yard shot from Giovinco. Just after the half-hour mark he pushed a long-distance Marco Delgado shot over the crossbar. With less than five minutes left in the half, he stretched out his long frame yet again, just barely parrying away another Vazquez attempt — this time a low, driven shot from distance.
In all, the 2016 MLS Cup MVP recorded six first-half saves. A game that could have been over — perhaps should have been over — was scoreless.
“Amazing,” observed Jordan Morris after the match. “He’s a big-time player. You saw last year he helped us win by making some saves. Unfortunately, they scored a couple goals (tonight), but he kept us in the game for so long. It’s impressive how he steps up in every game, but especially in these big games.”
The second half offered no respite. In the 60th minute, Frei blocked an ambitious effort from Michael Bradley that knuckled and ricocheted off the cold turf. He made a routine save on an Altidore header moments later, before once again delivering a stellar stop on a first-timed Giovinco shot in the 64th minute.
He was finally, perhaps inevitably, beaten as the game approached the 70th minute.
“If you get attacked as much as we were attacked,” said Uruguayan international Nicolas Lodeiro, “at some point you’re going to give up a goal.”
Altidore — who else? — finally bested Frei in the 67th minute, bagging a goal more than an hour in the making. After yet another Sounders turnover in midfield, Giovinco gathered a pass inside the center circle and took but one touch before spotting Altidore racing upfield in a wide channel between defenders Joevin Jones and Roman Torres. Altidore caught up with Giovinco’s perfectly-weighted through ball at the top of the penalty area, taking a touch to create space before besting a helpless Frei from 12-yards out with his left foot.
The goal snapped the Sounders’ 714-minute scoreless streak, an MLS playoff record.
“The adjustments we made at halftime didn’t work,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer acknowledged after the match. “And at some point if you’re going to rely on your goalkeeper that often and in so many critical moments, one of them is going to get through.”
In a post-game locker room replete with honest assessments, no one was more frank than Frei.
“I felt like we were defeated,” said the Swiss-born 31 year old. “That’s what’s disappointing. I feel like we accepted defeat. Before they scored, we accepted the way the game was being played. It wasn’t good for us, obviously.”
Whether the Sounders’ impotent attack in the last two league finals stemmed from personnel or tactics or execution is a question the front office will likely spend some time pondering before the 2018 campaign commences.
Two things are clear, though: The problem is not in goal, and Stefan Frei would not mind if his team played some more attacking soccer.
“We don’t want to be going to MLS Cup over and over and over again and get defeated like this,” Frei said while Altidore and Bradley and Giovinco celebrated in his old locker room down the hall. “We want to go back to MLS Cup and find ourselves in good positions to win.”