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If one team can ruin Toronto FC’s ‘best-ever’ season, it’s the Sounders

Sounders exude feeling of confidence going into the MLS Cup final.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — The smell of sprayed champagne permeated the air. It surrounded you, stinging your nostrils and reminding you that a rather wild celebration had just occurred here. The carpet was drenched, the lockers still covered in protective plastic.

By the time members of the print media were allowed in, though, the mood had grown more subdued. Former Sounders midfielder Erik Friberg was casually sipping from a Budweiser, congratulating the players he had shared a very similar experience with almost exactly one year ago. Injured Sounders Brad Evans and Callum Mallace were doing some light cardio on exercise bikes.

There was an overwhelming feeling of joy, but there was also an undeniable sense that there was still much work to be done. The Sounders seemed both proud of what they had accomplished — they are now just the fifth MLS Cup winner to return to the championship game the following year — while still aware that the ultimate task is the biggest one they’ve faced since last year’s final.

“I said this last year, you get these opportunities maybe once in a lifetime,” said Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who is riding a MLS playoff-record 557-minute shutout streak. “One year later, we find ourselves in the same situation. We want to take this opportunity.”

The Sounders, as a team, seemed to welcome that. Making the rounds through the locker room, no one was quite puffing out their chest and offering bulletin-board material to their opponents, but no one seemed intimidated either. Sure, Toronto FC had arguably the best regular-season in MLS history, setting a record with 69 points and posting a +37 goal-difference. Yes, they’ve already become the first Canadian double-winner and are trying to become the league’s first-ever treble winner. A win on Saturday probably makes them the best team in MLS history.

But there was a confidence that if one team could stand in there way, the Sounders were more than willing. The Sounders, after all, beat what is effectively the same Toronto FC last year and are improved at four starting positions and no worse at the others.

“I feel like it’s a more talented group, a deeper group,” Sounders defender Chad Marshall said. “Last year was great, we went on an incredible run. But from a talent standpoint, this team is even better.”

What’s remarkable about this team is just how different it is from a personnel perspective. During this playoff run, the Sounders have used nine players who weren’t on last year’s roster and 11 who didn’t play during the postseason. GM Garth Lagerwey was able to effectively retool the defending MLS Cup winners on the run and managed to make them better.

They’ve not yet allowed a goal in the playoffs, the first team to carry a 360-minute shutout streak into the final. Offensively, they’ve scored seven goals in their past three and at least two in each of them. Five of those goals have come from the run of play and the offense has rarely looked more dangerous than it did over two legs against the Dynamo.

Firing on all cylinders

There have been previous few chances to get them all on the field together at the same time, but what we saw with Nicolas Lodeiro, Clint Dempsey, Joevin Jones and Victor Rodriguez was special. The four midfielders combined to complete a rather astounding 92.5 percent of their 174 passes (credit Realio for pointing that out).

Jones and Dempsey were particularly effective, each missing just one pass. They also combined on a beauty of a goal, with Jones expertly sliding a ball through the box that Dempsey finished easily.

I’ve been pretty skeptical of Jones as an attacking midfielder. These last two games have been so good, though, that it’s hard to imagine Brian Schmetzer sliding him to left back at this point, even if it means moving Rodriguez to the bench.

Our own Atomic Ant

It’s hard to believe that Rodriguez’s signing was treated almost as an after-thought. At the time, he seemed like little more than an insurance policy against the Derlis Gonzalez deal falling through. Fast forward a few months and it’s hard to imagine the Sounders being nearly this good without him.

Rodriguez has only played 10 games, three of which are in the playoffs, and he already has three goals and three assists. He’s averaging .84 goals and assists per 90 minutes. That’s not too far off from the .94 G+A per 90 that Lodeiro averaged in his romping debut season.

Rodriguez’s best moment was probably the goal he expertly finished after a wonderful give-and-go with Will Bruin. But there was so much to like about his game, the way he’s constantly looking to push the ball forward and making attacking movements that force defenses to react. He’s a joy to watch and is one of the more significant changes the Sounders have to offer over the team that went to Toronto last year.

One more time for the people in the back

I’m not sure if a three-time Defensive Player of the Year can be underrated, but Marshall comes pretty darn close. The Sounders stalwart center back didn’t even crack the top 6 in DPOY voting this year. That’s the third straight year he’s finished with a low enough percentage of the vote that MLS didn’t even deem it worthy to say where he finished.

Yet, there he was in the middle of the Sounders’ defense helping secure another shutout. That’s the 12th shutout the Sounders have recorded in his past 16 starts (coinciding with Kelvin Leerdam’s first start) and it’s their 16th shutout in his past 24 starts dating back to May 20. The Sounders have allowed just 13 goals in that time, a minuscule average of .54 goals per game. There were only two teams in MLS who had as many as 13 shutouts during the whole 34-game regular season, the Sounders and TFC.

This one came without the help of Roman Torres, who was serving a yellow-card suspension. Gustav Svensson was totally fine next to him, but Marshall was absolutely flawless. As usual, he didn’t rack up eye-popping stats and wasn’t filling up the highlight reel, he was just doing his job to near perfection. That Frei only had to make three relatively straightforward saves was due in large part to the work Marshall did in front of him.

Stat of the game

.833 — The Sounders only took six shots, but five of them were on target and four of them were from inside the penalty area. As we know from past experience, quality chances are far more important than quantity of shots.

Quote of the day

“I think we should analyze, once the year comes to a close, getting ourselves in a better position to potentially play a final here in front of our fans. That’s a game-changer. You’re talking about playing in front of probably 60,000 who are friendly or 40,000 who are hostile. There’s a tremendous difference in terms of how you approach that game.” - Frei on the one thing he wish had gone better this year

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