We’ve arrived at the final stop of the long, winding road that is the MLS season. Toronto FC play the Seattle Sounders at what will be a packed BMO Field on Saturday at 8:00 et, finishing off a season that included everything from a major Drogba controversy to the ongoing demise of the North American Soccer League and the resulting boost to the MLS-affiliated USL.
I would say it was a crazy season, but let’s be honest: this is MLS, and every year qualifies as a crazy year. Nevertheless, the MLS Cup final matchup and the long roads that the clubs took in getting there illustrates the unpredictability and constant roller-coaster of our top domestic league.
Both clubs were in the minds of many as title contenders last offseason, especially the Sounders, who have had a particularly interesting journey in 2016.
[link_box id=”23229″ site_id=”158″ layout=”link-box-third” alignment=”alignright”]Seattle seemed to be the obvious MLS Cup winner in the time between January 21st and February 25th of 2016. That was the time between their two biggest offseason transactions: Jordan Morris was signed as a Homegrown player in January, creating abundant hope in the Sounders community, but then Obafemi Martins was offered a boatload of money by a Chinese club and just like that, one of Seattle’s MLS-era cornerstones was gone two weeks before the start of the season.
During that winter month of hope for Sounders fans, it was projected that Martins would start as a center forward in a 4-3-3 with Morris and Clint Dempsey on either side of him. That sounds like a pretty solid front-three, does it not? Well, imagine what it was like when Sounders fans were told that instead of Martins as that striker, it would be Nelson Valdez.
The Sounders went with that 4-3-3 in their first match of the season, and lost 1-0 at home to Sporting KC. Not long after, they decided that Morris and Dempsey weren’t working as wingers, and that Valdez is not Obafemi Martins, so they switched to a 4-4-2. That, as you may remember, didn’t work all that much better.
They staggered along for the next four and a half months, hanging around the lower depths of the Western Conference despite Morris’ seven first-half goals. The Sounders even hit rock bottom at one point in July, dropping into last place below the Houston Dynamo. By this point, playoffs were pretty much completely out of the question.
Longtime manager Sigi Schmid was fired in July for his inability to make it work with a club that didn’t have a true No. 9 or a designated chance-creator. The only saving grace for the Sounders, at this point, was their open Designated Player spot and the rumors that Boca Juniors and Uruguay No. 10 Nicolas Lodeiro would be coming to Seattle.
After weeks of speculation regarding Lodeiro, the deal was finally completed on July 27th, just in time for Brian Schmetzer to be named interim head coach. It was fitting that a Sounders lifer — Schmetzer played for the old Sounders in the 1980s and has been a member of their coaching staff (manager of the USL Sounders, assistant since 2009) since 2002 — would get to take the reins of a Seattle club on the verge of making history, although they didn’t know it at the time.
The first four matches the Sounders would play following the acquisition of Lodeiro would turn out to be the highlight of their season. Playing Clint Dempsey underneath Morris with Lodeiro performing his duties from the wing, Seattle destroyed every opponent in their path from July 31st to August 21st. They picked up 10 of a possible 12 points in those four games led by the big three of Dempsey, Morris, and Lodeiro.
In that span, Lodeiro had one goal and four assists; Dempsey had five goals and an assist; and Morris had a goal and two assists. One match in particular verified the absurdity of the club at that point: 3-1 vs. Orlando City on August 7th. Dempsey had a hat trick in that game (with Lodeiro and Morris picking up two assists each) and poor Orlando could have lost by more if not for Valdez’s screw-ups.
Good times in Seattle. But then tragedy struck: Dempsey went down with an irregular heartbeat after 90 minutes against rival Portland on the 21st, ruling him out indefinitely. That was when the world-beating Sounders slowed their role, something they couldn’t afford to do with their long road to the playoffs.
Despite Dempsey’s absence, Schmetzer and Lodeiro worked their magic and the Sounders slowly pushed the Timbers out of November soccer. Eventually, the Rave Green clinched their spot and roared into the postseason on a high after defying all expectations and salvaging what was at one point a lost season. It really was an incredible comeback, and if we’re doing second half MLS awards, Schmetzer’s easily Coach of the Year and Lodeiro’s the obvious MVP.
The story of Seattle’s calendar year is one that you would more likely see in a Hollywood movie. They started with abundant hope after a hometown star chose them over the Bundesliga, but things took a turn for the worse when one of their best players (Martins) abruptly left. Things got bad for a while, but then new heros (Lodeiro and Schmetzer) arrived and made things better. Though they had to endure the loss of an old hero (Dempsey), Lodeiro and Schmetzer propelled the Sounders all the way to MLS Cup.
It’s sort of a storybook tale. But it’s one that couldn’t have happened without the constant presence of the more unheralded players down the roster. Ozzie Alonso should have been an easy selection on the best XI at his defensive midfielder spot after another all-star year. Cristian Roldan has made his case this season for a national team shot as a No. 8, while Joevin Jones and Tyrone Mears were constants at full back.
Roman Torres got healthy about midway through the season and formed a lockdown partnership with Chad Marshall in central defense, and with an athletic shot-stopping keeper (Stefan Frei) behind them, Seattle got better and better at keeping balls out of the net.
Now, they have a complete roster centered around an elite No. 10, an elite No. 6, and a speedy young goal-scorer. This isn’t even mentioning the playoff resurgence of Valdez, who has carved a starting spot in the postseason.