The Seattle Sounders will play in the franchise's first MLS Cup Final against Toronto FC on Saturday (5 p.m. PT; FOX, TSN, UniMas, KIRO Radio 97.3 FM, El Rey 1360AM), but it's certainly not the first shot at a title for seven prominent members of the club.
Brad Evans, Chad Marshall, Herculez Gomez, Clint Dempsey, assistant coach Ante Razov and Sporting Director Chris Henderson have all played for MLS’ top prize. General Manager and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey has been involved in the front office in two Cup finals as well.
Evans and Marshall won the 2008 MLS Cup while with the Columbus Crew in a 3-1 win over the New York Red Bulls at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., back when the league still utilized a neutral site.
Evans was just in his sophomore season as a professional when he started in the midfield, but he understood full well what garnering a trophy would mean.
“All your hard work throughout the season goes into what ends up being one game,” said Evans. “If you happen to win that game, it’s validation of all the hard work you’ve done, not just then but in years past. Your youth career, high school, college. You always have goals of winning a championship.”
Marshall scored the second of Columbus’ three goals on a booming header off a corner kick to regain the lead just two minutes after New York’s John Wolyniec equalized shortly after the start of the second half. Marshall mentioned that the only way to prepare for a match of that magnitude is to have an understanding of your opponent and what they’re trying to do, what makes them tick, and trying to limit them as much as possible.
“I know now that I don’t have too many of these opportunities left to win a championship, to get a ring,” Marshall said. “Maybe eight years ago I was thinking I have some time if this one doesn’t go well, but that’s not the case now.”
Marshall was too focused on the game to even enjoy many of the festivities surrounding the match during his previous Cup final. He didn’t take the time to look around enough, lest anything distract him from his responsibilities. Managing emotions as a player is key, something Marshall and Evans each kept in check in their 2008 win.
“You’re there for a reason and it’s because you put in a lot of hard work,” said Evans. “Of course there may be a bit more butterflies than usual because there’s the consequence of losing and disappointing fans, city, team, but most importantly yourself because you’ve worked so hard for one thing.
“The flip side is getting to enjoy all those emotions afterward of winning for a city, a team and most importantly yourself,” he continued. “You have to understand both sides of it, and that’s what keeps you even.”
While the experience for Evans and Marshall may have felt a bit like a blur, Gomez remembers everything from his 2005 win over the New England Revolution.
Gomez and the Galaxy backed into the playoffs, played the No. 1 seed and knocked them out, went to Colorado in the Western Conference final and knocked them out then played a very good Revolution team — one that included Dempsey — and won in overtime on a Guillermo Ramirez strike.
Gomez likens his experience to that of current teammate Jordan Morris, who as just a rookie has been responsible for so much of the Sounders’ success this season. Gomez wants to make sure the younger players understand how rare these moments are and to soak them in as much as possible, much like what veteran Cobi Jones did in 2002, when Gomez, then a reserve, won his first MLS trophy.
“I was 19,” Gomez said, “and Cobi Jones stood up — I don’t remember how old Cobi was, he must have been 31 or something like that — and he specifically was talking to us young guys and he said, ‘Enjoy this moment. You guys that have this moment to be in a final, to win a final, it doesn’t come every day. There are guys that spend their whole careers that aren’t fortunate enough to reach a final.’
“I tell [the young guys] to soak it in, these moments are few and far between,” he continued. “The more of these moments you can live, the better you are for it.”
The Sounders’ front office has even more experience than its current roster. Razov and Henderson alone have six finals appearances between them. Razov went 1-3, winning in 1998 with the Chicago Fire, but falling in 1996 with the LA Galaxy and in 2000 and ’03 with the Fire. Henderson lost with the Colorado Rapids in 1997 before his Kansas City Wizards team defeated Razov’s Fire in 2000.
“We had a group of veteran players [on the 2000 Wizards],” Henderson said. “Preki, [Tony] Meola, Mo Johnston, Chris Klein, Peter Vermes, Miklos Molnar. It was an amazing group of players.
“That was 16 years ago,” he continued. “It’s strange to be here now with the Sounders and look back, it feels like it was just a few seasons ago.”
Razov doesn’t remember that 2000 match quite as fondly: “We dominated. Stats didn’t really matter. We outshot them like 27-3, and we lost 1-0. That was one of the best teams I played on. That was a hard day.”
Lagerwey spent five seasons in MLS as a goalkeeper, but his Cup experience came via his general manager role with Real Salt Lake in 2009 and ’13. RSL won the title in ’09 in just its fifth year of existence when it downed the LA Galaxy 5-4 on penalty kicks after ending regulation and extra time deadlocked at 1-1. Four years later, RSL drew 1-1 with Sporting Kansas City but fell 7-6 on PKs.
Now Lagerwey has a chance to earn his second title and first with the Sounders on Saturday.
“It’s really tough to compare teams,” said Lagerwey. “We had pretty good center backs on all the teams, pretty good central midfielders and pretty good forwards. So surprise, surprise, when you have those three elements…those are ingredients for success.”
From a front office standpoint, Lagerwey is rooting for Seattle because in a sense it’s all he can do at this point. Once the roster freeze went into effect on Sept. 15, his hands were off the steering wheel.
“Certainly there’s managing and helping your coaching staff out when possible and there’s helping with scouting,” said Lagerwey. “But if you’re talking about a one-off game, the only guys that matter are the 22 guys out on the field…You just try and support the coaches and make them as secure and calm as possible.”
At the end of the day, Henderson offered candidly, the MLS Cup Final is just another match. He wants to remind the players to take it in stride and to go and play the game their way, one which has produced an incredible amount of success over the last few months.
“You can’t make it a bigger game than it is,” said Henderson. “You know what you do, you know how you got here.”