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Looking back on Sounders’ first-ever trip to the championship game

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Think this MLS Cup loss was painful? The 1977 loss to the New York Cosmos was probably worse.

webster pele Photo courtesy of Adrian Webster

Was the crash in Columbus the most disappointing, hard to stomach loss for a Sounders team in a final? Or is it more gut-wrenching to see your team bested in a close, nail-biting contest with scores of chances for both sides?

Dozens of chances? In a final? Yup. It was the first for the Sounders, 43 years ago in the 1977 final for the North American Soccer League, “Soccer Bowl ’77.” In Portland, of all places, as the NASL used neutral sites for their championship games. The match against the star-studded New York Cosmos had historic significance, beyond Seattle and New York, as Pele’s last competitive game.

Gut-wrenching? The Sounders were denied an opening goal by the greatest save in the history of finals played in the U.S.; then, immediately after, they were possibly the victim of an incorrect offside call when Micky Cave slammed home the rebound. The anger turned to horror when Seattle’s Tony Chursky committed a goalkeeping gaffe that defies understanding, given his otherwise stellar performance in that match and throughout the Sounders’ run to SB77. All of this occurred within the first 20 minutes, followed soon after by a well-worked give-and-go to bring Seattle level.

Back to the save. While Stefan Frei’s denial of Jozy Altidore in the dying moments of extra time in the 2016 final is undoubtedly the most important great save, Shep Messing’s acrobatics in turning away Steve Buttle is the most difficult to duplicate. Buttle half-volleyed a 30-yard spinning, curving, dipping shot that sent Messing the wrong way, forcing him to shift his momentum and get low enough to dive and palm the ball from a few inches off the turf up off the crossbar. (For soccer historians, the save is similar to Gordon Banks’ stunning parry of Pele’s searing header in the England-Brazil quarterfinal of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, which is often cited as the greatest ever.)

Since highlights and a full-match replay of SB77 are both available on YouTube, I’ll spare you a detailed description of Chursky’s moment of madness except to add that, under the rules at the time, keepers were limited to four steps and had to distribute the ball or briefly cede possession, usually by rolling it, which Chursky did.

After Tommy Ord netted the tying goal, the two teams, both likely fatigued by midweek matches concluding their respective semifinal series, exchanged numerous gilt-edged chances in a wide-open affair. Just as Seattle finally seemed to be taking command, Cosmos’ winger Steve Hunt, who scored the opener, sealed his man of the match status with a cross in the 78th minute that Giorgio Chinaglia headed home for the winner.

Except it so nearly wasn’t. The Sounders, who unlike New York’s global 11 hailed either from Britain or Cascadia, pressed hard, with Ord getting off a close-in shot that seemed destined to tie it until Messing at full stretch tipped it off the near post in one of the last of more than 50 shots fired in the match. Soon after, the final whistle dashed Seattle’s hopes and offered a fitting coda to Pele’s brilliant career.

For most of that season, few would have bet either team would play in the final. Both started slowly (in what seems to be a generational recipe for the Sounders to play for cups) and barely made the playoffs. Seattle benefited from schedule congestion at the Kingdome which enabled the Sounders to host the second matches and, if necessary, tiebreaking 30-minute “mini-games” in the quarter- and semifinal series against Minnesota and Los Angeles, respectively.

Five years later, the Sounders overcame a 2-8 start, fueled in part by a 3-0 victory over Manchester United in a four-team tournament with Vancouver and Hajduk Split of the former Yugoslavia, to reach Soccer Bowl 1982 against the Cosmos, failing again in a fairly tame affair to a 31th-minute goal from Chinaglia.