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Lessons from MLS Cup: Sounders must start reloading now

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Degree to which Sounders were outplayed needs to be a warning sign.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

TORONTO, Ontario — To say the Sounders were overwhelmed in Saturday’s MLS Cup final rematch may not quite do the situation justice.

From almost the opening whistle until the bitter end, Toronto FC dominated. The 2-0 scoreline understated the degree to which they were the better team, as only several world-class stops by Stefan Frei kept it from getting completely out of hand.

The core of the problem was an inability to hold and win the ball. A midfield that was dominant along much of the path to this final was outplayed to a degree that was hard to fathom.

“As soon as they lost the ball, Michael Bradley was on top of everybody,” Cristian Roldan said. “That’s what it seemed like. He was all over the field. He makes Toronto very successful when he plays that way. Marky (Delgado) and (Jonathan) Osorio were good too. They made life difficult for us midfielders.”

Roldan was hardly alone in that, as the Sounders won just 29 percent of their duels and held just 43 percent of possession while getting out-shot 22-7.

“It was an extremely unusual game by our standards,” Roldan continued. “We usually out-pass every team, we usually out-duel every team. I would say this is probably the first game (in a long time) that we got out-fought in every category.

“But you have to use this as motivation next year. We have to do well in the beginning of the season to get home-field advantage. It’s obviously tough to come out to Toronto and win two times in a row.”

What was so frustrating about the loss wasn’t just that the Sounders are no longer MLS Cup champions, a title the organization deserved and at times during the buildup to this game seemed destined to retain. That was borne of misplaced confidence, apparently.

They were facing, after all, one of the best teams in MLS history. They had set the league record for points in a season (69), dominated opponents to the tune of a +37 goal difference and, yes, were playing at home in front of 30,000 very boisterous fans. As much as we may have convinced ourselves otherwise, TFC was rightfully favorites and played like it.

The more frustrating aspect of this game was the degree to which TFC were simply better. The scoreline may have said the score was tied through 67 minutes, but the Sounders were never TFC’s equal. While I suspect that if this were an aggregate-goal series that the Sounders would at least be respectable in their home leg, TFC were just so much better in this game that it’s hard to imagine the Sounders flipping the series.

Part of that is money. TFC is spending more on each of their three Designated Players than the Sounders spend on their highest paid one. Spending big hasn’t always meant big performances when they were most needed, but all three showed up in a big way this time. The Sounders probably aren’t going to outspend TFC on top-end DPs, though.

If the Sounders are to regain their place atop MLS, they’re going to need the likes of Nicolas Lodeiro and Clint Dempsey to play much better than they did against TFC.

But this loss also underscores the need to improve other parts of the roster. There might not be an obvious weak spot in the starting XI, but Garth Lagerwey needs to be open to improvements at a variety of spots. It would be advisable to make at least one of those signings this offseason, when the Sounders are preparing for a CONCACAF Champions League campaign that could go a long way to salving the wounds inflicted at BMO Field.

With players like Roldan, the Sounders have a core they can potentially build around for years to come. But they also can’t make the mistake of believing that just because they may be one of the league’s best teams now that their place is cemented. TFC now has brains to match their ambition and other teams are following suit. The gap between them and the Sounders is not as wide as it looked in this one game, but it will hopefully serve as a wakeup call.

“If you look at Toronto’s year, it was the loss in MLS Cup,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “That fueled their year. We can use that.”

Let’s hope so.