We’re now about 24 hours removed from the Seattle Sounders’ 1-0 win over the Colorado Rapids that clinched a spot in the MLS Cup final for the first time in franchise history. After sifting through images and tales of wild celebrations, it’s tempting to buy into the idea that everything that happens from here on out is sort of icing on the cake. That the goal all along was to play for the MLS Cup, not necessarily to win it.
But we know better. The Sounders know better. They took every opportunity to remind us — and themselves — that there’s still one more game to go and it’s the biggest, most important game in franchise history and it’s not particularly close. Getting the opportunity to play this game is obviously huge, but none of this will stand the test of time if the Sounders don’t lift the trophy on Dec. 10.
That said, we owe it to ourselves to take at least a little more time to appreciate what an amazing ride this season has been.
We can take it all the way to the offseason when the “what will he do?” tale of Jordan Morris was hitting full stride. That he ultimately decided to forego his senior season at Stanford, shun Werder Bremen and the Bundesliga and choose to play for his hometown Sounders seemed like a sign that it was all falling into place.
But then the Obafemi Martins transfer happened and suddenly the offseason plan looked chaotic. Several key components had been shipped out while the only notable additions were Morris and the largely unproven Joevin Jones.
By the third game of the season — all losses — questions about the roster construction were growing louder. Even though the Sounders managed to get back to .500 by May 7, treading water until the summer transfer window seemed to be about the best they could hope for.
We know what happened next. The bottom fell out of the season, as the Sounders went 2-8-1 over their next 11. That included a brief stay in the Western Conference basement and ultimately cost Sigi Schmid his job.
On the field, the playoffs were such a long shot that salvaging the season meant figuring out what useful parts the team had. It seemed a foregone conclusion that this would be the worst season in franchise history, the trick was making sure it wasn’t completely lost.
And yet here we are, some four months later talking about the reality that this is the Sounders’ must successful season, at least as far as postseason accomplishment goes. For all the talk of the club abandoning its roots, we’re now here with a homegrown player and coach leading the way; a reportedly divided locker room has morphed into one that sings and dances together with alarming regularity; a roster that once seemed so poorly constructed now looks perfectly well positioned for 2017, with at least one Designated Player spot likely opening up but no glaring weaknesses that must be addressed immediately.
Most of all, a team built around an aging core now revolves around three players whose average age will be 23.7 when next season begins.
- Nicolas Lodeiro is the kind of cornerstone that allows the Sounders to build in any number of ways and he’s young enough that we can do so with our eyes several years down the road.
- Morris has not only thrived in his first professional season, but he’s avoided hitting the rookie wall that so many players from the college ranks hit as their bodies deal with the endurance a nearly 10-month season requires.
- Cristian Roldan has emerged as the steal of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, a player whose potential suddenly looks more like “potential USMNT starter” than “will have a solid, but unspectacular MLS career.”
Those three players alone promise to give the Sounders a strong core for at least the next three years, barring unforeseen transfers or injuries. That gives the front office the flexibility to add veteran role players and gamble on youngsters. It gives fans players they can invest emotion in. It gives the marketing department personalities they can sell.
What’s great, though, is we don’t even need to spend time worrying about their potential right now. We get to enjoy their reality. Those three players were good enough to account for six playoff goals and an assist while playing nearly every minute of the five matches.
The Sounders’ turnaround wasn’t just built on the backs of those three players, of course. There are easily a dozen others who deserve a ton of credit for pulling this season out of the ditch.
All of them came together and helped make this a special season. No matter what happens we’ve been allowed to go along for the ride. Let the historians worry about whatever happens next.
Morris is becoming Mr. Clutch: One of the hallmarks of a great striker is not just the goal totals. Those tend to come in bunches, when the chances are flowing and the opportunities flush. What sets apart the greats from everyone else is what they do when they’re starved for space, running out of ideas and need a goal in the worst way.
More than anything else, that’s the growth we’ve seen in Jordan Morris this year and never was it on better display than Sunday. Like most of his teammates, Morris had a rough first 45 minutes with just 12 touches and only three successful passes in the offensive half.
But that didn’t stop him from coming good when the opportunity to make a game-changing play presented itself early in the second half. Making an aggressive run after Nelson Valdez controlled a mis-clearance, Morris was rewarded with a perfect pass that put him into a one-on-one chance with Zac MacMath. Morris played it perfect, taking a first touch that forced MacMath off his line and then chipping it with the outside of his right boot.
That’s two huge goals in two absolutely huge games for Morris. Just for good measure, he also logged 90 minuted despite taking a pretty serious spike to the knee from MacMath on the goal-scoring sequence and battling some kind of stomach ailment for the previous two days.
If this is just the beginning, we’re in for an amazing ride.
Don’t let anyone diminish this: There are going to be people that try to write off the Sounders’ achievement as undermining the importance of the regular season or simply the product of a team getting hot at the right time. Don’t let that change how you feel.
For one, keep in mind that the Sounders finished fourth in the West and seventh overall. They would have qualified for the playoffs under every format MLS has used in its history.
Beyond that, the Sounders needed to average all of their 2.0 points per game over their final 14 to qualify for the postseason. Sustained over a full season, that would have won the Supporters’ Shield in every year other than 1998.
Finally, consider who the Sounders had to go through to get here. FC Dallas won the U.S. Open Cup-Supporters’ Shield double, while the Rapids had the second most points in the league and allowed fewer goals at home (eight in 19 games) than any team in MLS history.
The Sounders have been one of the best teams in the league over their final 19 games (going 12-3-4), 49 percent of the season. They’ve earned their spot.
Get well soon, Ozzie: If there was a dark cloud hanging over the Sounders’ win it was the “slight knee sprain” suffered by Osvaldo Alonso that forced him out of the match around the 75th minute. By now, it should go without saying that the Sounders are a significantly weakened team without Alonso, but just for illustrations purposes we should note that the Sounders were 0-2 in 2016 and 2-9-2 since the start of 2015 in matches the midfielder couldn’t play.
There is no like-for-like replacement on this roster, that’s just the facts. One possibility might be to push Nicolas Lodeiro back, the way he did for the final 15 minutes of Sunday’s game. As encouraging as it was to see Lodeiro willing to do that — he only even attempted two offensive-third passes in the second half — it’s not a recipe for success in MLS Cup.
There will time to go over the possible replacements, but for now let’s just say the Sounders’ championship hopes rely heavily upon Alonso’s availability.
Pour one out for the Rapids’ finishing: Credit to the Rapids for putting together a gameplan that made the first 30-odd minutes absolutely frightening. They pressed high, forced the Sounders into some mistakes and barely let them string passes together, let alone threaten the opposing goal.
But the Rapids failed to find the goal. Heck, they couldn’t put a single shot on frame. Once that wave passed, the momentum switched. The Sounders started stringing passes together, putting pressure on the Rapids backline and not allowing a single shot from inside the penalty area over the final 58 minutes.
The Sounders effectively exposed the Rapids’ biggest weakness: Being absolutely awful in the final third. The Rapids, for all their work, set a ignominious record as well.
Colorado's 16 shots without putting one on target are the most by any team ever in an @MLS game (regular season or playoffs).— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) November 27, 2016
Give the Rapids credit for assembling a stellar defense and doing just enough on offense to get this far. But this is a team with serious question marks that are going to need to be addressed in the offseason.