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MLS playoffs review: Gritty Seattle's improbable run to winning MLS Cup

The 2016 MLS playoffs ignited with Sebastian Giovinco's goal at BMO Field and ended some 40 days later, with an injured Giovinco watching helplessly as Toronto FC lost on penalties in the final that would have brought them a first MLS Cup.

Here, we look back on the journey that led to the Seattle Sounders finally winning Major League Soccer's biggest prize.

Play-in games

D.C. United vs. Montreal Impact

Remember D.C. United? Coming into the playoffs, Ben Olsen's team had hit a rich vein of form. United was scoring goals for fun, and the team had retooled its attack behind Patrick Mullins. D.C. looked like a dark horse for the MLS Cup, resembling the 2016 equivalent of the Portland Timbers, who hit form at just the right time.

And then United was blown away at home by a resurgent Montreal Impact. The final 4-2 scoreline made the game seem closer than it ever was. A stunned D.C. was overwhelmed in midfield, where it had never fully replaced Perry Kitchen. From there, the team was picked apart in the final third by Ignacio Piatti, back in early-season form, and the pace and finishing of Matteo Mancosu, in for the badly fading Didier Drogba.

So much for the art of peaking at the right time, you might think. But in the other play-in game in the East, Toronto -- playing its first-ever playoff game at BMO Field -- was ushering in its own stadium as perhaps the breakout star of the postseason.

Toronto FC vs. Philadelphia Union

Toronto was a strong favorite to get past Philadelphia, for sure, with the Union struggling to score down the stretch. But the Reds still had to show they could win a playoff game.

They did, in emphatic fashion. Giovinco's spectacular opening goal released a cathartic roar inside the stadium, and from then on, Toronto cruised to a 3-1 victory. The result was also notable for Jozy Altidore, who grabbed an 85th-minute goal to start what would become an amazing run of a goal in every game leading up to the MLS Cup final.

But it was the crowd that had reintroduced themselves to MLS as a possible X-factor for the rest of the run. As Altidore himself put it afterwards: "It was amazing. It almost feels like soccer was reborn again in Toronto."

LA Galaxy vs. Real Salt Lake

If soccer was being reborn in Toronto, there was a palpable sense of something ending in LA. A few years ago, a game between LA and RSL would have been a showpiece of two of the most technically accomplished teams in MLS. RSL had shown signs of resurgence this season, but the form of homesick Juan Manuel "Burrito" Martinez had stalled in the summer, and the team's goals had dried up. Salt Lake managed to score one in Carson, California, but LA hauled in three.

Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC

And then there was Seattle, who could have been written off as a first-round playoff elimination because of a challenging, if not downright traumatic, year. If you'd said the Sounders would be playing Sporting KC in the play-in game without Clint Dempsey or Obafemi Martins, under a head coach other than Sigi Schmid and with Ozzie Alonso functioning as the midfield fulcrum yet again, you'd have been hard pressed to imagine a run to the finals.

Yet there we were, watching what would become the familiar sight of the Sounders gritting out a win. After years of postseason flakiness, Seattle's mettle characterized its campaign.

Sporting KC was as organized as Seattle on the night, but didn't get some refereeing calls and ended its playoffs early. On balance, it looked about a fair outcome to a middling season.

Conference semifinals

New York Red Bulls vs. Montreal Impact

It was another familiar story for the New York Red Bulls, who saw a 20-game unbeaten streak undone by Montreal's efficiency on the counter. The Impact's collectively 100-year-old midfield played off the ropes, absorbed pressure and sprang behind the Red Bulls' high press. Mancosu sealed a 1-0 win in Montreal, but most crucially, no New York player could grab an away goal. When the game came back to New York, every possible game state seemed fraught with peril for the unbalanced hosts.

Sacha Kljestan's missed penalty, bloody nose and general ineffectiveness were the symbol of the second leg, but not the story; that was Impact coach Mauro Biello emphatically coming out of the shadow of Didier Drogba. The Impact's speed without Drogba was an exponentially greater threat than the ponderous team hoping for magic against the odds when he was on the field. The Impact scored two goals at momentum-killing moments for New York and won 3-1 on aggregate.

New York City FC vs. Toronto FC

Meanwhile, Toronto dismantled NYCFC. Patrick Vieira tried to get creative with his strategy to surprise Toronto in the first leg, but he ended up undermining his own team's confidence. His team held on until late in the game, but Altidore (who else) broke the deadlock, and when Tosaint Ricketts bundled home a second in injury time, the Reds had a great advantage before heading to Yankee Stadium.

Rather than sitting on its lead when arriving at Yankee Stadium, Toronto went at New York from the start. An exquisite control and finish from Giovinco broke New York's resistance almost immediately, and from there, a procession turned into a rout. A 7-0 aggregate win, a Giovinco hat trick and another Altidore goal set the tone for an epic battle of Canada in the conference final.

Jozy Altidore
Jozy Altidore was massive with his run of goals for Toronto FC on its road to MLS Cup.

FC Dallas vs. Seattle Sounders

New York's collapse might have been the most emphatic of the playoffs, but it was not the most shocking. That came in Seattle, when FC Dallas' 10-minute loss of concentration cost the team a shot at the treble. The Sounders swept down the flanks to overwhelm Dallas and ran out 3-0 winners at home. Dallas would win the return leg 2-1, but everyone knew the game was up after Oscar Pareja's side showed one of its most unfortunate traits at a key time. When Dallas goes down, it can go down hard.

Colorado Rapids vs. LA Galaxy

In the fourth conference semifinal, Colorado outlasted LA on penalties in a battle of attrition. In fairness, the Rapids had never promised anything else, but there was little to enjoy over two tight legs, other than Shelken Gashi's wicked shot to level the aggregate score in the second game. The Rapids earned the win on penalties in front of their own fans, while the fading Galaxy barely had a shot in the second leg.

Shkelzen Gashi
Shkelzen Gashi (right) scored a screamer for the Colorado Rapids in their series against the LA Galaxy.

Conference finals

Colorado Rapids vs. Seattle Sounders

Colorado was now the highest seed remaining, but its season would peak around 13 minutes into the first leg of the Western Conference final, when a speculative deflected shot from Kevin Doyle looped over Stefan Frei and into the Seattle goal.

From there, Seattle scored two of its own with some constant pressure to take a narrow lead to Colorado. Then, the Sounders played one of the most organized games of the playoffs to expose the Rapids' lack of imagination in front of goal. Jordan Morris, playing after a bout of flu, scored the opportunistic winner to hand Colorado its first home loss of the entire year. 

The Seattle Sounders defeated the Colorado Rapids in the West finals to advance to the MLS Cup.

Montreal Impact vs. Toronto FC

Perhaps Montreal should have studied Toronto. At 3-0 down early in the first leg at Montreal's Olympic Stadium, TFC was headed for another anti-climactic playoff exit to its great rival. But the midfield reorganization that put Will Johnson beside Michael Bradley transformed the team and provided the platform for a stirring comeback. Altidore (again) and Bradley scored two away goals to dramatically tilt the tie in Toronto's favor, and it was back to BMO Field for another epic night.

And what a night it was. Montreal did not go quietly, scoring first through Dominic Oduro and again with an awkwardly deflected Ignacio Piatti toe poke early in the second half. But Toronto scored five, two in extra time, from a variety of unlikely sources (and, of course, Altidore). TFC, for its part, was fortunate its own defensive problems were not more costly. But the Reds had discovered a midfield balance just in time to face Seattle and ensured that BMO Field would play a starring role once again.

And, of course, Toronto had played and won a series for the ages, one that emphatically laid to rest a historic reputation for choking.

MLS Cup final

Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders

It wasn't a great final, and the cold conditions didn't help. This game went to penalties and on to sudden death before Roman Torres scored the winning kick. There was no sign of Seattle's irresistible attacking force in the final -- the team couldn't muster a single shot on target for 120 minutes -- but there was grit and nerve in the way Alonso covered ground and Frei stayed alert to keep out Toronto. And when it mattered, Seattle's penalty takers held their nerve a fraction better.

So, the Seattle Sounders finally have an MLS Cup. Toronto FC, though, will always have that Montreal series, some unforgettable BMO Field memories and the knowledge that it has finally earned its peers' respect.

Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.

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