SEATTLE — The confetti had barely settled, the smell of pyrotechnics still lingering in the cool Seattle late November evening. Myriad fans stuck around long after the players had disappeared into the locker room to douse each other in champagne, some not sure what to do next and others simply refusing to stop celebrating.
Inside the locker room at CenturyLink Field, in the coaches’ office tucked away, assistants Gonzalo Pineda and Djimi Traore didn’t stop working. The Seattle Sounders had just convincingly defeated the Houston Dynamo 5-0 on aggregate in the Western Conference Championship to advance to their second consecutive MLS Cup, but the job, as captain Osvaldo Alonso coined during last year’s title run, is not finished yet.
Pineda and Traore had already started going over the lineup for Toronto FC, who the Sounders will face in a rematch of last year’s final at BMO Field on Saturday, Dec. 9. Head Coach Brian Schmetzer thanked his assistants, saying he was blessed with a talented and hardworking staff, but he was intent, too, on making sure his team enjoyed Thursday’s moment.
“The best part of my evening was when Ozzie took the trophy up to the fans, and those fans cheered every single player who raised the cup,” said Schmetzer. “That is the example that I keep talking about. The relationship between the fans and the players is what makes this club so special.”
The Sounders held a strong advantage entering Leg 2 after an impressive 2-0 away win in Houston last week and made a massive statement in the return leg. Víctor Rodríguez opened the scoring off a deft pass from Will Bruin, Clint Dempsey scored his franchise-record sixth postseason tally and Bruin fittingly finished off his former team with his second goal in the series.
Seattle has played the best postseason soccer of any team in MLS and is yet again peaking at the right time. The Sounders have not conceded in a playoff record 647 minutes dating back to the first leg of the 2016 Western Conference Championship — a streak of nearly seven consecutive matches — and have not allowed a goal in their last 542 minutes dating back to their match with the Philadelphia Union on Oct. 1.
“We had a motivated group [this year],” said Schmetzer. “We had a veteran group. We had a team that during that long [unbeaten] streak was able to manufacture points to get us into second, which was key. The players just want it. They just want another championship. I know Dempsey is super, super motivated. I know Román [Torres] and [Nicolás Lodeiro] and all the guys who were here last year, Ozzie, they’re super motivated. The group is ready to compete for a championship.”
The team that won 2016 MLS Cup did something special and felt like a team of destiny after its spectacular run to qualify for the playoffs. This 2017 edition isn’t a feel-good story. This is a team that is firing on all cylinders, defeating teams in multiple ways, and has played every bit like champions during this current postseason stretch.
The Sounders have outscored their opponents 7-0 in four playoff matches, and all seven goals have come from players who did not participate in last year’s postseason. Dempsey, who has a team-high three goals, missed the final third of 2016 with an irregular heartbeat and watched Seattle hoist its first league title from the sidelines. Bruin, who has two goals, was struggling to find the field in Houston, Gustav Svensson was in China and Rodríguez was playing on a soon-to-be relegated Sporting Gijón side in Spain’s La Liga.
Seattle also added fullback Kelvin Leerdam in the midseason transfer window. Since his arrival in early July after winning the Dutch Cup with Feyenoord, the Sounders have only lost twice and conceded eight goals in 18 matches.
“It’s the best feeling, it’s what you do it for,” Leerdam said of winning trophies. “You train hard the whole year just to reach that goal. We have one game left, the biggest game of the season. It’s easy to come here and do it once, but if you do it twice it’s much more difficult. Everybody wants to beat you when you’re the champion, so I think we had a long, long road to come here, but we’re not there yet.
“Toronto is at home, last season they lost at home to Seattle, they don’t want that to happen twice,” he continued. “The pressure is going to be on us because we are the defending champions, but it’s going to be on them too because they play at home for the second time, they broke the record in a season, it’s going to be tough game for both of us and may the best team win.”
The Seattle Sounders are the reigning MLS Cup champions until Dec. 9, but it’s a title they intend to keep.
“It’s a confident team,” Schmetzer beamed, “and it’s a team that’s not finished with defending our cup.”