In a season as up and down as the Seattle Sounders’ 2018 MLS campaign, it’s perhaps only fitting that the final match was the most mercurial yet.
The Sounders and Portland Timbers’ rivalry on Thursday night added another chapter, one written by a drunkard devolving into madness, a “some men want to watch the world burn” screenwriter with a sick sense of humor. The teams traded goals five times in 29 minutes before the Timbers prevailed in the fifth round of penalty kicks to advance to the Western Conference Championship, ending Seattle’s reign of back-to-back winners of the West.
Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer tried to make sense of the craziness, to wrestle logic into a match devoid of any at all, but even he, ever the astute and wise reader, could find none.
“I’m actually at a loss for words because they put everything into the game,” said Schmetzer. “It’s always hard. I think one constant from all the ups and downs was, again, the mentality of that group, the fight of that group. When it went low, they picked themselves up. During the highs, you could just tell. You could just see on the field that they were in that moment.”
Forward Will Bruin stood at his locker, head slightly lowered, and answered question after question like a professional. He entered in the 80th minute, and the Sounders scored twice in 17 minutes since he came on. He shot second in the penalty shootout, but his attempt rattled off the left post, inches away from finding the bottom corner.
“It’s going to sting for a while personally, but that’s how it goes in playoffs,” said Bruin, who finished third on the club in goals this season with seven and fourth in assists with five. “Sometimes you get punished on mistakes. For their goal in overtime, I lost the ball and that’s how they got it and put a cross in and scored. I’ll take this one extra hard.
“The soccer gods weren’t with us tonight and that’s the way it is. It definitely hurts.”
Stefan Frei in action against the Timbers on Thursday | USA Today Sports
In a year that started as disappointingly and frustratingly as this one, goalkeeper Stefan Frei was one constant. Schmetzer said earlier this week that Frei “kept us in this season” when the team wasn’t firing on all cylinders. The 32-year-old had a career year, finishing first in MLS in save percentage, second in Goals Against Average and setting a club record for saves in a single season. He was an MLS Goalkeeper of the Year finalist and made a diving, one-handed stop on Lucas Melano at the death of Thursday’s match, minutes before Raúl Ruidíaz’s volley in stoppage time sent the match into extra time.
Frei’s demeanor postgame was subdued and reflective. His words were carefully selected, though, positive and prideful.
“We showed a lot of heart,” said Frei. “We showed that we care. Resilience. We didn’t give up. That’s been a trademark of this team.
“We understand the rivalry is a real thing and I think that’s why today, too, there’s a lot of heart, a lot of soul poured into this game on both sides,” he continued. “It was a pleasure to be a part of that. I think this is going to go down as one of the feistiest and probably best games to watch in our rivalry in history. There’s definitely respect there.”
Defender Jordan McCrary got his first taste of the Sounders-Timbers rivalry this season and knew it would live up to the hype he had observed from afar. And on Thursday, he got to witness firsthand how these matches tend to take on a life of their own, every twist and turn yanking on emotions, back and forth, until the strings break altogether.
Jordan McCrary applauds to fans after the match | Charis Wilson
“I can definitely say it was absolutely the craziest [match I’ve ever played in],” McCrary said. “We gave everything we could in that game, literally until the last second and it had to end in PKs.
“We’re still a good team, there’s a lot of accomplishments we accomplished this year, winning multiple games consecutively as a team. It’s hard to not see the positives out of it even though right now it’s tough.”
The Sounders now have time to decompress. Some players will spend the whole offseason thinking about Thursday’s match, using it as motivation to keep working. Others will have already forgotten it, wiping the slate clean and choosing to start anew in their preparations. However the players and coaches decide to digest the latest installment of this country’s best soccer rivalry, one hopes they’ll hold their collective heads high and focus on the positives in a campaign that despite its cruel ending, had myriad moments of joy and fulfillment.
“You can’t fault them for effort, you can’t fault them for tactics, you can’t fault them for sticking together,” said Schmetzer. “They never quit. So, you just thank them for all of the effort and all of the work that they put in throughout the whole season. You just try to get them to individually take away all of the good things they had during the season.”