Seattle riding a wave of belief, hard work and luck to MLS Cup final
COMMERCE CITY, Colo. -- Brian Schmetzer had just been asked what he made of leading the Seattle Sounders to their first MLS Cup final, especially given the struggles the team had earlier this season.
"I'm very proud of this franchise," he said. Then his voice quivered, and his eyes welled up.
He then said, "The fans deserve that. They deserve it."
Schmetzer's sense of Sounders history runs as deep as anybody's. When a reporter mentioned that the Sounders played in two NASL championship games in the 1970s, Schmetzer quickly corrected him, saying there was one in the 1980s as well. Schmetzer ought to know, as he was part of the Seattle team that lost the 1982 Soccer Bowl against the New York Cosmos 1-0. He was also the team's manager in 2005 and 2007 when the Sounders won championships in what was then known as the USL First Division.
On Sunday, Schmetzer and his players added to the team's history. The Sounders rode Jordan Morris' second-half goal, along with some rugged and at times desperate defending, to claim a 1-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids in the second leg of the Western Conference finals, and a 3-1 aggregate triumph.
"The significance of this is it's now, and we are creating these moments," he said later, having regained his composure.
"The moment that we created for the 200-plus fans that drove or flew all the way here on a holiday weekend to Colorado, to the 40,000-plus fans we have every home match, it's very significant.
"It's significant to the fans that were watching us in Memorial Stadium back in the '70s. It is significant. It's another chapter, but we're not finished yet.
"We have to make sure that all of this culminates with something really big, really great, a really special moment that people will take for many years."
Schmetzer is right of course, but in some respects, Seattle has already done something special this season. Back in late July, the Sounders were in ninth place, had just fired manager Sigi Schmid, and hired Schmetzer on an interim basis. Never mind an MLS Cup final appearance, a spot in the playoffs seemed to be pure fantasy. Nothing was going the team's way.
But Schmetzer rallied his side. Sure, the acquisition of Nicolas Lodeiro revived the team's attack, even after Clint Dempsey was sidelined with a heart ailment. Roman Torres returned from a knee injury to help solidify the back line. Young players like Cristian Roldan and Morris expanded their games and emerged as players who could be counted on. Even Nelson Valdez, the poster child for Designated Player busts, regained his scoring touch once the playoffs started.
Yet Schmetzer deserves his share of credit for getting the team pointed in the right direction again, and convincing the Sounders that what seemed impossible was indeed possible.
That said, Schmetzer has had help of a different sort. Seattle has arguably had better teams in its MLS past, the 2014 Supporters' Shield-winning side in particular. But there was something that always scuttled the Sounders' MLS Cup dreams. There would be injuries to key players, like Ozzie Alonso or Mauro Rosales. Or there was a loss of form for individuals at the wrong time.
Now, after seven years of MLS Cup playoff disappointment, fate, it would seem, has finally decided to smile on the Sounders. The team is mostly healthy, though Dempsey and Brad Evans can still be counted as significant losses.
Seattle has peaked at the right moment. And it sure helps if your opponents start seeing attributes like health and form evaporate. If you find yourself benefiting from a dubious refereeing decision or two, so much the better. That dash of luck hasn't been lost on Seattle, though it's been the residue of hard work as well.
"Those are all variables that are difficult to kind of align so that they come into play at the right time when we need it," goalkeeper Stefan Frei said.
"But I think for us this year, that's what happened. We had do-or-die games for the last three months of the season.
"I think it instilled a good work ethic to win playoff games. Our confidence soared. We had guys healthy.
"All those things I think are factors that you need to be in your favor in order for you to have a chance of winning the trophy."
It also helps when you have a goal scorer like Morris. Much like the team itself, Morris had his ups and downs during the regular season. But along the way, he has shown a greater ability to ride out difficult moments during games and stay engaged.
That attribute was on display in the second leg. Morris had been battling a stomach virus for the previous two days, and looked short of his peak. But the best goal scorers in the world have a knack for converting the one chance they get in a game, and that was what Morris did Sunday, neatly putting away Valdez's pass.
"The kid is not only strong physically, dealing with the [diabetes] that he has, but he's also strong mentally, and I think that was what you saw today," Schmetzer said.
Morris even gamely carried on after taking a knock from Colorado goalkeeper Zac MacMath right after scoring. Morris lay on the ground for several minutes, and that led to an exchange with the Sounders' team doctor, Dr. Michael Morris, who yes, is also Jordan's father.
"He just came out and was checking that all the ligaments were in there, but he was pushing where the guy cleated me," the Sounders forward said. "I never yell at my dad but I was kind of yelling at him there."
Morris convinced all involved that he was OK, and then finished out the 90 minutes. When asked about his ability to better deal with such challenges, Morris indicated the only change is in his head.
"I think I'm just playing with more confidence, and confidence is going to help you play whether it's at the beginning of the season or the end of the season," he said.
"You try not to think about those things, but your play on the field is going to be about your confidence, and I just feel confident that the guys have been so supportive and helped me through tough times, and so I'm just playing with more confidence."
The same can be said for the Sounders, and now they'll carry that belief into their first MLS Cup final.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.