Surprising Seattle Sounders reach new heights with berth in MLS Cup Final

They did it.

A moment eight years in the making finally came good. After one of the wildest up-and-down seasons for any team in MLS history, the Sounders are going to the MLS Cup Final.

Seattle Sounders 1. Colorado Rapids 0.

So much had made of the Rapids’ home edge, but the Sounders neutralized it like no team has all year. The Rapids’ fortress had been unassailable in 2016, and their 12-0-6 record at home at altitude made the task set before Seattle all the more daunting. While it’s true they held a one-goal edge on aggregate, a single goal by the Rapids would’ve tilted the balance and forced the Sounders to equalize against perhaps the best home defense in MLS history.

The Sounders didn’t have to worry about it thanks to the biggest goal of Jordan Morris’s career.

Morris’s looper over Zac MacMath off a Nelson Valdez assist in the 56th gave Seattle a 1-0 edge, which then forced the Rapids to get two just to sent it to extra time. They did not get it, as the Sounders managed to influence the Rapids’ attacking line enough that all 16 of Colorado’s shots were off the mark.

Despite being behind in nearly every statistical category, the Sounders finished ahead in the one that mattered. And now they’re headed to their first final in their eighth consecutive playoff trip.

Here’s three things we learned from the biggest win in franchise history.

Jordan Morris, Ultimate Ironman

Nobody was at all surprised when Morris’s name popped up on the lineup sheet before the game. Morris returned to the XI in the first leg, a 2-1 Sounders win, and there were no known injury issues around him on the day of the game. But Morris had quietly been dealing with an illness in the 48 hours before the match, and by the time the game started he clearly wasn’t at 100 percent.

Morris soldiered on, making occasional runs but looking a bit slower than normal. Of course that was partially due to the altitude and the Rapids’ vaunted defense, but the illness did him no favors either. So when he took a knock on his right knee on a hard 50-50 challenge with Jared Watts, it only added to his day of infirmity. When he beat MacMath on his well-timed chip of MacMath, the post-goal collision with the keeper put even more stress on the knee. He played the rest of the match with it wrapped.

Morris somehow played the entire 90 minutes with a bum knee and an infection. And he still managed to score the biggest goal in the Sounders’ postseason history. Ironman.

Morris ultimately only had 24 touches in the Rapids’ half, a sign of wider issues as the Sounders struggled to find oxygen in the Rapids’ attacking spaces. Nicolas Lodeiro, for instance, only managed 37 passes, his lowest total since joining the team in July. But Morris managed to pop up in the right place at the right time and got the goal of his life. Unreal.

Brian Schmetzer, Postseason Wizard

When Brian Schmetzer took over for Sigi Schmid at midseason with the year more or less in tatters (the Sounders were in ninth place in the West at the time), nobody was entirely sure what to expect from his former understudy in a tactical sense. Would Schmetzer more or less be an extension of Schmid, provide slight tactical tweaks or overhaul the system?

Schmetzer’s proven himself to be a shrewd game manager, a consistent tactical mind and an even smarter man manager. And he just played the Rapids series like a perfectly tuned Stradivarius aged to perfection in the Italian Alps.

For one, Schmetzer stoked the confidence of Valdez to the point that he’s become a masterful contributor late in the season. Valdez endured a frustrating regular season, with brutal miss after miss chipping away at his morale as he eventually lost his starting spot to Morris. But Schmetzer’s faith in Valdez late in the season restored his tactical assurance up top, and his assist to Morris late on was proof Schmetzer is getting more out of him than ever.

He’s also played his tactical subs to perfection. Alvaro Fernandez came back on Sunday and subbed on for Andreas Ivanschitz midway through the second half. Needing to clog the middle against a centrally-focused Rapids side, Fernandez pinched inside next to Cristian Roldan as Lodeiro scooted back to the defensive third to provide cover.

And finally, Schmetzer’s no-nonsense 4-2-3-1 and its slight permutations gave Seattle a fighting chance to break down the most resolute back third in the league and capture the first win in Commerce City for a visiting team all year. The consistency from Schmetzer and the way he played the series shouldn’t be forgotten. He’s put players in positions to be successful all year, and that’s a major reason why the Sounders are a single win away from their first MLS Cup championship.

A Turnaround For The Ages

This is all very hard to digest for Sounders fans. And that’s for an exceedingly good reason.

Go back to a late July game against Sporting Kansas City and you’ll understand why. In that match - before Schmid and the Sounders parted ways, before the arrival of Lodeiro and Fernandez - the Sounders nearly went the full 90 minutes without registering a single shot on goal (that would’ve been a first in the 20-year history of MLS). They finally got one in the 88th minute, but it was the only one, and the 3-0 loss dropped Seattle into ninth in the West by the end of the weekend.

Four months later, those same players were celebrating in the chilled altitude of Colorado, hoisting a Western Conference title trophy and shifting their gaze to the MLS Cup. It’s all very surreal.

We’ve talked before about how unlikely this turnaround was historically, because something of its kind has never happened before. The Sounders averaged a paltry one point per game over their first 17 games and nearly doubled it over their final 17 to clinch the postseason on the final day of the regular season. They ousted that same Sporting KC team in the Knockout Round, bested No. 1-seeded FC Dallas in the semis and then outlasted the best defense in the league in the conference championship

The Sounders’ turnaround has been nigh unbelievable. Perhaps for everyone outside the organization, anyway.

A club with lofty ambitions like the Sounders isn’t content with an appearance in the MLS Cup Final, of course. They’ll want to go out and win the thing. But take a moment this week and think about how far the Sounders came this year, from the injury turbulence to the coaching turnover to the new faces to the devastating Clint Dempsey news to the playoffs and now to the league’s ultimate stage.

The Sounders have the opportunity to bring home the one piece of major hardware they have yet to capture. For now, be sure to appreciate the wild, winding road that got them here in the first place.