TORONTO — As the dust has finally started to settle on the Seattle Sounders’ first-ever MLS Cup title, it’s becoming clear that the soccer world is split into two factions.
One sees the Sounders as finally ascending to the heights that had long been expected, equal parts happy for the team and to be moving past the “can’t win the big game” narrative.
The other faction, perhaps predictably, is tying themselves into knots over the supposed flukey nature of the victory. They’re only too happy to point out that the Sounders became the first MLS champion to fail to score a goal, to not even put a shot on frame and set a shot-futility record with three.
You can guess which side I fall onto.
More broadly, though, I’m here to tell you that neither of these narratives really matter. The reality is that the Sounders are MLS champions. Nothing anyone says can take that away. If people want to focus on the supposed undeserved nature of this win, feel free to consider it justice for the previous seven seasons when the Sounders won as much as all but one team, claimed five other major trophies and repeatedly had their MLS Cup runs cut short by any variety of unfortunate circumstance.
Sure, the Sounders got a little lucky to face a FC Dallas team that was missing their top playmaker. But no one was shedding any tears when Clint Dempsey went down this year and certainly no one seemed too broken up when the likes of Osvaldo Alonso or Mauro Rosales couldn’t play in previous playoffs series.
The Colorado Rapids may not have looked like world-beaters when the Sounders dispatched them, but they were still the team that didn’t lose a single game at home until the Western Conference finals and only allowed seven goals at home all year.
Let’s also give some credit to what seems to be a largely overlooked defensive performance to claim the title. Toronto FC had set all sorts of records by scoring 17 goals on their way to final. They were playing at home with an impressive crowd supporting them. Their big players were all reasonably fit. There were no built-in excuses.
Much has been made of TFC outshooting the Sounders 19-3. A closer look at the quality of those shots shows how misleading that is. Nine of those shots came from outside the penalty area and 10 of them were blocked by defenders. Of the seven shots that were taken from inside the penalty area and not blocked, only five forced a save. After regular time, all of TFC’s chances hadn’t even totaled a goal by xG and they barely cracked 1.0 by the end, presumably mostly on the strength of Jozy Altidore’s header that Stefan Frei somehow managed to turn away.
I’m not going to sit here and try to convince anyone that the Sounders played an aesthetically pleasing game. TFC had a great gameplan and largely executed it. Unlike virtually every other game, there’s no point in really analyzing how a team won. The goal, though, is not to look better, it’s to do everything possible to be the team lifting the trophy at the end. In a cup final, that’s literally all that matters.
Where this season ranks: Once the playoffs are taken into account, the Sounders finished the year with an 18-15-7 record. Translated to points per game, that’s 1.525, which ranks it as a middling season during the MLS era. It’s better than 2010, 2013 and 2015 and just about even with 2009, not great but also not notably bad.
Obviously what was different about this season was the way they finished, and not just the playoff run. When people like Garth Lagerwey bristle at the idea that this team only got hot at the end of the year, it’s because they look at a broader picture. The Sounders ended up playing 20 games under Brian Schmetzer and went 12-3-5. That’s literally half the season of playing at 2.05 points per game. Over a 34-game season, that would translate to 70 points, which would be a post-shootout era record.
No one’s going to argue that this Sounders team was among the best in league history, but don’t let anyone diminish what they became over the final four months.
Have a hit, Joevin: There weren’t a ton of in-game highlights for the Sounders, but three days later I’m still laughing at Joevin Jones’ penalty. Keeping in mind that a miss would basically seal the Sounders’ fate, Jones calmly stepped up, took just a couple steps in his run-up and laced his shot into the upper-90. Jones then casually turns around, says his little prayer, and goes back to the team like it’s no big deal.
The best part, though? Clint Irwin’s smile and head shake, basically just acknowledging what a ballsy move that was.
It’s been an up-and-down year for Jones, but boy has he come through when the Sounders needed him most.
Putting it into context: The Sounders became just the sixth MLS team to win MLS Cup, the Supporters’ Shield and the U.S. Open Cup in their franchise history, joining the LA Galaxy, D.C. United, Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire and Sporting Kansas City. The Sounders are the only post-1998 expansion team to have achieved this.
This was also the Sounders’ sixth major trophy since joining MLS, the same number as Sporting Kansas City. The only U.S. teams with more trophies are the LA Galaxy (12) and D.C. United (11). Even if you include the Canadian championship — which has been played under a variety of formats and has never included more than three MLS teams — only the Montreal Impact move ahead. None of those teams have more trophies than the Sounders since 2009, and the Galaxy (five) are the only other team with more than three. D.C. United (two years) and the Galaxy (seven) each completed the all-time treble faster, but also did it before the league expanded beyond 12 teams.
@AlexiLalas didn't take long pic.twitter.com/jHaaDLxUFF— Brian Straus (@BrianStraus) December 12, 2016
Champions play in Champions League: One of the smaller prizes for winning MLS Cup is entry into CONCACAF Champions League, something the Sounders have plenty of experience with. The only years in which the Sounders did not play in either the group stage or knockout round of CCL were 2009 and 2014. The Galaxy are the only team with more appearances in that time, having only missed out entirely in 2009.