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Postgame Pontifications: Making perfect happen

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The pressure the Sounders felt was unquantifiable, but they performed through it all

Kayla Mehring/Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — Throughout the buildup to Sunday’s MLS Cup, there was an almost disarming degree of acceptance among the Seattle Sounders that this was not just another final.

The Sounders knew this had been a tumultuous season, that they’d already vanquished their most intimidating opponent and had now earned the right to finally host the biggest game in franchise history. All eyes were suddenly focused on Seattle.

There were no head games about who was the underdog. Whatever the betting markets or experts may have believed — and they mostly thought it was something close to a toss-up — the Sounders understood that the city, the fans and anyone else associated with the team fully expected them to win. This was the Sounders’ most talented squad ever, effectively at full strength and finally playing the type of the soccer they had intended all along. There was no reason to pretend otherwise.

But there’s no such thing as inevitability in sports. That’s why we pay attention. That’s what keeps us coming back. That’s why they play the freaking game.

Through nearly 60 minutes we were reminded of this very thing, and it looked like Toronto FC was at least capable of ruining the Sounders’ party. We know what happened next — Kelvin Leerdam hit a shot that banked off a couple defenders and into the net. Victor Rodriguez entered soon after and the Sounders effectively cruised to the their second MLS Cup in four years.

For all the expectations and narratives, the players still had to perform, though. That should never be taken for granted.

“It was very difficult for me,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei admitted afterward. “I always talk about preparing and going through the butterflies well before the game. I think I slept probably 30 minutes the night before. I thought, ‘Oh what does that mean, I’ve never had that.’ I’ve always been able to sleep and had those butterflies put to bed by then. To wake up with sweats and getting no more than 30 minutes, I was like, ‘Yeah, there’s definitely pressure there.’

“This is such a big opportunity, not just to win, but also a possibility that you lose at home which could be devastating. You have to be aware of that possibility and I think we were. I like the way we were steady. It wasn’t our best game, but we weren’t panicking. When we got our moments, people stepped up and that’s why we’re hoisting the trophy.”

It was in those first 50-odd minutes that the lessons the Sounders learned along their way to MLS Cup were so useful. In the 32 matches between March 16 and Oct. 19, the Sounders won just once by more than a single goal. Easy victories were not a luxury they enjoyed. More times than not, though, they found ways to pull out wins. No other team in MLS played more matches in 2019 decided by one goal or less than the Sounders. That experience served them well when it mattered most.

A perfect day

The tension of those first 50-odd minutes also served to heighten the emotions of the match, and I think made the overall experience just about perfect. For sure, everything that led up to it surely was.

I arrived in Pioneer Square about 7:30 AM and the area was already buzzing. A few hundred people were early arrivals at the Occidental Square stage, and local bars and restaurants had lines stretching well outside their doors.

By the time the standing-only tickets went on sale at 9 AM, the area around the stadium was teeming with activity. When I went back around 10:15 AM there were so many people packed into the area that getting into Occidental Square was basically impossible. Even the pavilion area between Main and Jackson was shoulder-to-shoulder.

The pictures of the March to the Match were absolutely breathtaking as a sea of humanity that has been estimated to be about 10,000 people strong streamed into the stadium.

Rather than take it all in from my normal spot in the press box, I chose to visit my wife in our seats in section 131 and stayed long enough to experience boom-boom-clap, as well as to see the full-stadium tifo deployed. I was nearly moved to tears when I realized that volunteers had not only cut the cards that made up the massive mosaic, but had also laid out all 68,000 of them. I was equally impressed that so many fans, with no instruction or encouragement beyond a desire to create a collective experience, raised their cards to create the image.

That the Sounders won the match obviously helped tie the bow on everything.

Earlier in the week I had asked GM Garth Lagerwey if he thought merely hosting this game had the potential to be transformational. He had sort of stumbled through an answer then, but had a much clearer opinion once the Sounders had emerged victorious.

“The crowd... the crowd is the thing, right?” he said. “I mean, we had 10,000 people outside the stadium. We had people literally serenading from the concourses to the outside of the stadium, to the city, before the game even started.

“To be here now as a Seattleite, as part of the Sounders, and to see this community react that way… You know, we’ve been asking all week, is this going to be transformational? I hope it is, man. That was the coolest sporting event I’ve ever been to in my life. This is the best Sounders team of all-time. All of that, nobody can take that away from us.”

No one felt it more than Schmetz

Lagerwey joked about how he now considers himself a real Seattleite because one of his kids was born here. But no one is more “Seattle” than Brian Schmetzer. That’s hardly a secret at this point.

Still, it was moving to see him fighting back tears at the start of the postgame press conference and it was just another reminder that for all the narrative power his story brings, no one was feeling more pressure than Schmetzer.

As he always does, Schmetzer talked about the players, his coaches and the fans all “deserving” this title. But literally no one deserves this more than him.

Some stats to think about

The Sounders went 15-1-2 this season anytime the trio of Raúl Ruidíaz, Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris all started. That included a perfect 4-0 in the playoffs, where those three combined for nine goals and nine assists.

Perhaps the most telling stat about Seattle’s postseason run, however, was this one: The Sounders had a +7 goal-difference during four playoff games after having a +3 goal-difference during the regular season. Among the MLS Cup winners since the league dropped best-of-three series from the format following the 2002 season, only Atlanta United’s 2018 run was as good.

The postseason just so happened to be one of the few multi-game stretches when the Sounders effectively had their preferred 11 available. Given that, I suspect Lagerwey will be inclined to bring back a lot of them in order to make a run at that Concacaf Champions League trophy he’s long coveted.