The Seattle Sounders beat Toronto FC on penalties on Saturday night to win MLS Cup 2016 at BMO Field. Here are the ten things we learned from the final.
1. The Strangest of Victories
After putting together some of MLS’ best-ever teams, year in and year out, it took the season in which the Seattle Sounders fired their coach midseason, lost Clint Dempsey, and registered zero shots on goal in their last game to finally lift MLS Cup.
Were MLS Cup a lifetime achievement award, the Sounders might have been crowned a long time ago. As it stands, however, this triumph – 0-0 in normal time, 5-4 on penalties – will go down as one of the oddest in league history.
Not that it will matter to Seattle. This day has been a long time in coming, and for the likes of Brian Schmetzer, Osvaldo Alonso, and Brad Evans, it will feel like the culmination of one of the great eras for any club in American club soccer.
Just five months after sitting in last place in the Western Conference, the Sounders have kept MLS Cup in Cascadia. Perhaps in a league as strange as MLS, there is no more fitting champion.
2. Stefan Frei Puts His Name Up in Lights
For neutrals – and, you’d have to imagine, Toronto FC fans – this was a dismal final.
It was MLS’ first ever showpiece event to go scoreless through 120 minutes, with the Sounders failing to register a single shot on target and TFC, for all their endeavor, rarely threatening either.
Interestingly enough, it was the one player involved in this game with a link to the old, ugly history of Toronto FC who made the one play that will stand the test of time.
Stefan Frei’s save on Jozy Altidore’s looping header to keep the Sounders alive in the second half of extra time was stupendous, made with the Swiss goalkeeper reaching backwards while flying through the air to keep out what would have been the championship-winning goal.
Frei was strong all night, as he has been for three years now in the Pacific Northwest, and he did enough in the shootout to ensure that he’d be the 2016 MLS Cup MVP.
3. Toronto Despairs
Toronto was never going to match what they did in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final against Montreal in this game. What they needed was a break. And they didn’t get it.
Plenty of credit goes to Seattle for that. Frei came up with an outstanding moment, of course, but Roman Torres and Chad Marshall had superb games defending Altidore in central defense as well, and Alonso – on one leg, apparently – put in a terrific shift in central midfield.
But Toronto, in total control over the 120 minutes, just didn’t come up with enough quality. Sebastian Giovinco was disappointing, while the central midfield around Michael Bradley wasn’t nearly incisive enough.
This will be extraordinarily painful for Toronto – especially so for manager Greg Vanney, who has now lost MLS Cup for the fourth time.
After the way they beat the Impact, playing the final at home with the entire city behind them, Vanney must have felt like it was his team’s year.
It wasn’t to be. But TFC made incredible strides this year. If they stay the course as a club, they’ll be in the winner’s circle soon enough.
4. Waiting for Ricketts
TFC’s best chance – the one that forced the miracle save out of Stefan Frei – was created when Tosaint Ricketts skipped by Roman Torres and set the table for Altidore.
Ricketts had been hot off the bench all postseason long, and his impact upon arrival in this game begs the question why he only got fifteen minutes in a game in which Toronto clearly could have used an injection of pace.
In fact, Ricketts only got on when he did because Giovinco had to be subbed off. In a sense, Greg Vanney managed the game backwards. He began aggressively, starting Jonathan Osorio over Will Johnson, and then became increasingly cautious.
Why both Johnson and Benoit Cheyrou came on with TFC chasing a goal at the end of normal time is hard to understand. Ricketts’ pace was one of the only factors that made Torres and Chad Marshall uncomfortable all night. Toronto could have used him earlier.
5. Bradley’s Wait For Vindication Continues
Michael Bradley was Toronto’s best player in this game. He was omnipresent – excellent defensively on Nicolas Lodiero, tidy on the ball, and crucial to TFC’s territorial dominance.
And had Bradley scored his penalty, he would have ended the night by lifting MLS Cup as a Toronto legend. But Bradley has never been a good penalty taker, and his attempt was, by some margin, the weakest of the night.
It’s been a tough ride for the US captain since the 2014 World Cup. His worth has been questioned time and again, for both club and country. Tonight could have – should have – been redemptive. Instead, that wait for Bradley will have to continue.
6. Would the Sounders Have Won With Sigi Schmid In Charge?
If you listen to Sigi Schmid tell this story, he’ll more or less tell you that Seattle’s turnaround was inevitable.
He might not be wrong. Schmid was fired just as Nico Lodiero was signed, just as Roman Torres returned from injury, and just as Jordan Morris started to figure out MLS.
Brian Schmetzer made some sound moves in his time in charge – notably making Christian Roldan a fixture in central midfield – but it’s not inconceivable that the Sounders would have righted the ship with the only MLS coach they’d ever known.
Instead, Schmid was left watching from a suite at BMO Field and quietly congratulating his former players on the field after game. Even in its most glorious moments, this can be a cruel, cruel game.
7. Alan Kelly
There were some frustrations voiced about the performance of referee Alan Kelly in this game, but they were misguided.
Kelly lets games flow. He calls among the fewest fouls in the league, and that’s one of the biggest reasons why he’s generally regarded as MLS’ best official.
Kelly stayed true to form on Saturday night. He would not whistle soft fouls – not even for Giovinco – and he kept a game that could have spiraled out of control early when Nelson Valdez started flying around intact.
It was a poor game. But that wasn’t Kelly’s fault.
8. A Missed Opportunity?
MLS could have used a great game. This might have been the league’s most high-profile game since David Beckham’s debut almost a decade ago: Two marquee clubs in a primetime Saturday night final on a major network.
Instead, Don Garber and company got 120 minutes that frequently bordered on unwatchable. The weather – it was around 20 degrees in Toronto – didn’t help, but it’s fair to say that the occasion got to both teams.
It’s hard to say whether that will have any tangible impact – after all, how many people are converted to MLS fandom after watching a single game? – but the game likely won’t have helped to advance the league’s cause in the United States.
What this postseason did do, however, was galvanize Canada. Between the Montreal-Toronto series and the country hosting the final, the league might have made a serious leap up north.
9. Alonso’s Crowning Glory
The Sounders’ stand-in captain said that he took a total of eight painkilling injections on Saturday night – four before the game and four at halftime – and they were well worth it.
At this time last year, Seattle was actively looking to trade Ozzie Alonso. But no club in the league was willing to break the bank for him, and he returned to the Sounders in 2016 with a point to prove.
Fair to say, it’s been proven. Alonso had a sensational year, and, as usual, he was all over the place in the final. An added bonus? He helped deny an old nemesis, Will Johnson, what would have been his third MLS Cup.
10. Zach Scott Goes Out On Top
Mr. Sounder himself, Zach Scott, with the club since 2002, will retire a champion.
Scott didn’t get on the field Saturday night, but that won’t matter much to him. This was a player who, early in his career, plied his trade with the Cleveland Force of the Major Indoor Soccer League.
Now, he’s going out an MLS Champion. An American soccer story if there ever was one.
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