Drink it in, because a run to a title has never been crazier than this.
It was never the prettiest of affairs on Saturday night. The Sounders, in fact, made MLS Cup final history by becoming the first team to ever go a full match without registering a shot on goal. Seattle often struggled to cobble together meaningful forays into the attacking third, and most of the Sounders’ most vital threats were often nullified by Toronto FC’s numbers. As much as most of us thought TFC’s defense would struggle it was ultimately its most imperious asset.
But in the end, the penalties told the story. And the Sounders, for all the insanity of the 2016 season, are MLS Cup champions for the very first time.
By now you know plenty about how the Sounders overturned the worst start in MLS franchise history to make the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. You know how they overcame a hungry Sporting KC team, downed No. 1 FC Dallas and then dropped the No. 2 Colorado Rapids en route to the title game.
And you know how, just months removed from replacing their head coach, the Sounders found a way to galvanize behind a new playmaker in Nicolas Lodeiro and a new head man in Brian Schmetzer to climb to the ultimate pinnacle.
And now, for the first time in club history, the Sounders have the most coveted trophy in MLS.
Here’s a glimpse at three things we learned from the biggest night in the club’s more than 40 years of life.
No Shots? No Problem
The Sounders have mostly been opportunists on the road this year. For the most part, Seattle’s lived on half-chances, knockdowns and quick prods to create opportunities away from the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field. That’s not much of a surprise in a league that stresses away teams to this degree, but it was also important to keep in mind for Saturday. So when the Sounders failed to so much register a single shot through the first 45 minutes, the shock was perhaps a bit overblown.
The real shocker came later. Over the course of regulation and two overtime periods - a total of 120 minutes - the Sounders didn’t manage to put a single shot on goal. And they still somehow managed to win an MLS Cup. How in the heck does that work?
Part of the answer lies in how unbelievable the Sounders’ back line was. Everyone knew Seattle had the better of the back lines entering this game, it was just a matter of how much room Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore would ultimately be able to find in and around them. And the answer was not much.
Here’s a glimpse at the shot totals from Altidore (No. 17) and Giovinco (No. 10).
Giovinco, who came out in extra time limping, only managed six shots, half of which came from speculative positions well outside the box. Two more inside the box were blocked and the sixth missed entirely. As for Altidore, he managed to get two clean shots off in the box, but one was a meager effort bodied off by the excellent Roman Torres, and the other was palmed off the line by man of the match goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
In sum, TFC’s two most dangerous players weren’t left in a ton of dangerous positions. So while the Sounders might not have generated much going forward, their greatest job was keeping perhaps the hottest attack in league history from doing much of anything dangerous in the final third.
Stefan Frei for Seattle Mayor
So here’s the thing. Nicolas Lodeiro’s mostly been the Sounders’ best player over the last four months. Jordan Morris has been its best rookie. Cristian Roldan has been its most unsung hero. Nelson Valdez has mostly been the late-season hero. And Torres has mostly been the comeback player most were happy to welcome back from injury late in the year.
Stefan Frei, the Sounders’ continually snubbed goalkeeper, has been... what exactly?
Frei was immense on Saturday, and the Sounders’ owe him a debt of gratitude for essentially dragging them across the finish line when their attack blinked out on the biggest stage. Frei wasn’t asked to make any glaringly spectacular save in regular time, although he did routinely have to advance off his line to clean up crosses, long balls and shots. Frei was certainly more active than the Sounders’ attack.
But it wasn’t until extra time that the Sounders realized how truly locked in Frei was. Altidore wriggled free in the box for a looping header, and Frei skied to his left and palmed it off the line at the last possible second. It was one of those ridiculous, game-saving saves that you stick in an anthology 40 years hence and tell your friends that you saw in person. Frei’s acrobatics almost defied gravity, and they certainly defied Altidore’s credulity.
Frei had one more moment of magic in him in penalties. Michael Bradley, who’d had one of this best games of the season, drilled a penalty low and to his right, and Frei smothered it with ease. TFC ultimately equalled that moment out, but when Justin Morrow pinged his chance off the crossbar you knew it was Frei’s night. He wasn’t meant to be beaten.
Frei’s been snubbed on the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year final three list for two years running, which is a frank travesty considering his form. Perhaps now the voters will realize that in Frei, they’re dealing with the most criminally underrated and consistently fantastic keeper in the entire league.
The Most Improbable Champions in MLS History
Let’s take a moment for a quick mental exercise.
It’s July 25, 2016, and as a Sounders executive you’re staring at the unthinkable. The coach that guided you through everything - expansion, four U.S. Open Cups, a Supporters’ Shield - is gone. His assistant is in his place, Lodeiro has yet to play a game and the team has the most anemic scoring record in the league. Clint Dempsey is exhausted after Copa America Centenario duties, the team can’t seem to generate assists out of the midfield and you’re nine points out of the last playoff spot.
Things don’t look good.
To go from that waypoint to here is almost inconceivable. The Sounders climbed out of that hole to become one of the league’s most prolific teams over the final third of the year. They went from losing eight of 11 games to winning eight of 13, and with the help of those new faces they made the postseason on the final day of the regular season.
One magnificent, crazy playoff run later and here we are. On the highest rung of the ladder for the very first time. Surreal, huh?
The performance in the final only seemed to hammer that point home. The Sounders weren’t particularly ascendent in it, and TFC had a legitimate claim on the title. But the Sounders simply willed themselves to the crown, and when Torres’ match-winner hit the back of the net it almost felt like a sort of destiny. For all the fire the Sounders came through to get here, what are a few more licks of flame?
Drink this in, Sounders fans. It gets no better than sitting atop the league. After the wildest season in MLS history, the trophy is coming home.