Seattle Sounders make long-awaited MLS Cup breakthrough in Toronto
TORONTO -- The Seattle Sounders claimed their first MLS Cup title Saturday, defeating Toronto FC on penalty kicks 5-4 after extra time finished scoreless.
Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei and defender Roman Torres were the heroes in the shootout. Frei saved Michael Bradley's attempt, only for Toronto keeper Clint Irwin to parry away Alvaro Fernandez's shot one round later. When the shootout went to the sixth round, Toronto's Justin Morrow hit the crossbar while Torres converted his attempt high and slightly to Irwin's right to send the traveling Seattle fans into delirium.
Here are three thoughts on what was a rugged MLS Cup final.
1. Seattle makes its long-awaited breakthrough
This was one of those grim, gritty finals that makes connoisseurs weep. The defenses dominated, though Toronto created better chances. In fact, Toronto striker Jozy Altidore had several clear opportunities to put the home side on top, but the lethal finishing touch that has characterized his play in the postseason was absent on this night. The play of Frei had something to do with that, especially when he delivered a brilliant one-handed save to deny Altidore in extra time. Frei stymied Tosaint Ricketts as well.
The aesthetics will matter little to Seattle, though the fact that this edition of the Sounders made the club's long-awaited MLS Cup breakthrough seems completely counterintuitive. Think of the best Sounders teams, and images of attacking players like Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins immediately spring to mind. This side had to operate differently, especially after Dempsey was sidelined with a heart ailment in late August. And while the brilliance of midfielder Nico Lodeiro often drove the attack, this Sounders team embodied a resilient defense that proved to be the team's foundation.
This game proved to be no different. Seattle had to withstand some long periods of pressure and created very little. But Torres and Chad Marshall did plenty to contain Toronto's attack, and holding midfielder Ozzie Alonso was immense.
The defensive graft was needed, as Lodeiro was kept in check. The Uruguayan seemed to get on the ball with enough regularity, but rarely connected with the likes of Nelson Valdez or Jordan Morris. As a team, Seattle mustered just three shots, none on target, with both marks setting dubious MLS Cup final records.
In the end, it didn't matter. A Seattle team that was mired in ninth place back in July, and fired manager Sigi Schmid, recovered through the steady hand of replacement Brian Schmetzer. Not even the absence of Dempsey could stop them, and now they are MLS Cup winners.
2. Alonso, Frei immense in victory
On a night when defenses had the upper hand, Seattle's Alonso stood tallest.
Alonso is one of those players opposition players and fans love to hate. His primary task is to break up plays, and his methods can stray into illegal territory. On Saturday night, he committed five fouls yet didn't receive a yellow card. He tangled often with Sebastian Giovinco, successfully corralling the Italian for most of the game, and Alonso's tackles often drew howls of protest from Toronto players and fans.
But for all the complaints about his methods, he is utterly effective. And on this night he did a little bit of everything. He tackled, blocked shots, made interceptions and recovered loose balls. He also did what he could to initiate an attack that was often stuck in neutral, completing his passes at nearly an 80 percent clip, second-best on the team.
There was concern that the longtime Sounders mainstay wouldn't be fully fit for the match after he incurred a knee injury during the second leg of the Western Conference finals against the Colorado Rapids. That concern grew when Alonso was spied training apart from his teammates the day before the match. But Schmetzer assured fans and media that there was nothing to worry about, and he was proved right. Suffice it to say, the Sounders wouldn't have won without him.
The same could be said of Frei. For much of the match he had little to do, but he delivered the saves when necessary, especially in the match's latter stages. Frei endured some difficult years in Toronto from 2009 to 2013, but now he will walk out of the stadium he used to call home as an MLS Cup champion with Seattle.
3. TFC will rue missed opportunity
What will stick in the craw most for Toronto is that it did so much right on the night.
Toronto manager Greg Vanney opted to start the more attack-minded Jonathan Osorio instead the grittier Will Johnson. Early on the move paid off. Toronto was on the front foot from the opening whistle, and Altidore nearly put the home side ahead in the second minute, only for his shot to be deflected just wide. Bradley soon established the game's tempo, and he and his Toronto teammates seemed first to every loose ball.
Toronto continued to pile on the pressure, creating numerous set-piece opportunities, but couldn't find a breakthrough. Meanwhile, the challenges were flying in, including one from Valdez that practically skewered TFC defender Drew Moor. But referee Alan Kelly for the most part opted to keep his cards in his pocket, issuing only two yellow cards to Seattle.
Kelly's lack of action had an effect. Anytime Giovinco got the ball, Seattle's defense collapsed around him. And when he did shake free, he was subjected to a procession of tactical fouls, some of which went unsanctioned. All told, Giovinco was fouled four times in the first half, and six times in the game.
Toronto's defense, which looked vulnerable during the Eastern Conference finals against the Montreal Impact, was resolute. But it still wasn't enough.
The match for Bradley is especially bittersweet. He was brilliant, as he did plenty to set the attacking tempo and do the dirty work defensively. Yet in the penalty shootout, his weak attempt was easily saved by Frei. It was a tough end to an otherwise fantastic performance.
Altidore too will rue the chances that he didn't convert, especially his header in extra time.
The road back to an MLS Cup final is long, and certainly Toronto made immense progress this season. But this defeat will cut deep for everyone involved with TFC.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.