To call what transpired at Lumen Field on Monday night a mere comeback or rally kind of undersells events. Maybe we need a new word.
As the Western Conference final entered the 75th minute, visiting Minnesota United led the heavily-favored, defending champion Seattle Sounders by a 2-0 score.
Fifteen minutes plus stoppage time stood between the Loons, a club that began the season with modest expectations but finished it hotter than tater tot hotdish, and an unlikely trip to MLS Cup.
Just 15 minutes plus stoppage time likewise separated the Sounders from a failed title defense, from a lost and maybe last chance to establish themselves as both true dynasty and arguably the greatest team in league history.
A comeback seemed unlikely, a win in regulation implausible. When center back Bakaye Dibassy headed in a 67th-minute free kick from Loons playmaker Emanuel Reynoso for the 2-0 lead, Sounders’ obituaries piled up on social media. Beat writers worth their salt, oddsmakers by necessity, were well into stories telling the tale of a little team that could.
But Minnesota United was playing on 48 hours less rest than the Sounders, and the Sounders liked what they saw long before mounting a historic rally.
“At halftime we said, ‘They look tired,'” said Will Bruin after the match. “I think we had that feeling that if we got the first one, maybe you would see their heads go down a little bit, and I think that was the case.”
Call it a comeback, a rally, whatever, what happened was this: the Sounders poured in three goals in 18 minutes, won 3-2, and are heading to MLS Cup for the fourth time in five seasons, a record matched only by D.C. United in the league’s nascent days.
What happened was something that defied explanation, even to Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer.
“As a soccer fan,” said Schmetzer, “when I look back on this in 10 years, that was an unbelievable performance. I don’t know how we did it. I’m just tellin’ you, I don’t know how we did it.”
How they did it, first and foremost, was through second-half substitutes Will Bruin and Gustav Svensson, the one they call the Dancing Bear and the one they call Goose.
Bruin entered the match in the 73rd minute, Svensson in the 77th. Both had grown increasingly anxious as the match wore on and they remained on the bench.
“You’re down 2-0,” said Bruin. “More time goes by, you’re like, ‘Alright, come on. I want to go in, I want to go in, I want to go in.'”
“You just want to help,” added Svensson. “You’ve been watching the game on the side, and you just get filled up with energy. You want to come in, you want to get subbed in, you want to help, you want to tackle, you want to pass, you want to shoot, you want to do everything you can.”
The game changed as soon as Bruin finally came on.
“Minnesota had the game in their hand,” said Schmetzer. “Fifteen minutes to go. In comes Will Bruin. Midwest guy. Ready for the fight. Ready to have at it. And he sparks the group.”
All night the Sounders got most of what they asked for from the Loons. Every time they undid themselves. They got to dangerous places, made dangerous passes, then dallied over the ball, misplayed a lay-off, left Raul Ruidiaz on an island. Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris both hit the post.
“Our final third movements maybe weren’t as sharp as they could have been,” said Schmetzer.
“As soon as Will stepped on the field,” said Schmetzer, “he wins a couple headers, he holds the ball up really well, the ball goes wide. All of the sudden Raul’s free to do what he does — float off the back shoulder, all of that. I mean, Will’s contribution to the game was tactical, mental, statistical. It was a lot.”
Bruin’s goal just two minutes after coming on was all right-place right-time, no-muss no-fuss Will Bruin, hanging out where he belonged, in the heart of the box, pouncing on a deflected Ruidiaz shot, no piddly indecisiveness, one hard-swung touch and into the back of the net and a deficit halved and game on.
Or maybe game over.
“We knew if we got one,” said Bruin, “we were gonna get two.”
Minnesota United lagged down the stretch, holding on with ever-increasing desperation as the Sounders applied ever more pressure courtesy of fresh fullbacks Kelvin Leerdam and Brad Smith, both brought on in the 70th minute.
“I thought we did a really good job of moving the ball efficiently and crisply, and with pace,” said Bruin. “I think we got our outside backs high and wide and got them higher up the field and put them in better positions to get crosses in, but at the same time we weren’t just whipping aimless balls in the box.”
Ruidiaz equalized in the 89th minute, one of the league’s most prolific scorers inexplicably left alone at the back post to clean up a deflected corner kick.
“It’s almost a bend but don’t break mentality for them,” said Bruin, “and unfortunately they broke.”
With less than a minute remaining in stoppage time, the visitors broke for good. The 33-year-old Svensson headed a Nicolas Lodeiro corner kick past goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair for the 3-2 lead, a goal perhaps all the more meaningful given Svensson’s recent absences.
The Swedish international played every minute of last season’s playoffs for the Sounders, even recording a pair of assists in the club’s 3-1 win over Toronto FC in MLS Cup. But this year he tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from international duty in mid-November, and missed the Sounders’ first two playoff matches due to quarantine protocols.
The club announced on Nov. 23 that a player had tested positive, but Svensson — who says he was completely asymptomatic — only identified himself as that player after Monday’s match.
“I didn’t want this year to end with me just on the sideline, watching from the TV,” he said. “And I’m very happy now that I could help my teammates to play another game, and have another week.”
The Sounders now face the Columbus Crew in MLS Cup on Saturday, looking to win back-to-back MLS Cups and three titles in five seasons. No matter the score in the 75th minute, Svensson knows this much: “With patience, and with skilled players — with talented players — sometimes you can create a lot in 15 minutes.”