TORONTO – The Seattle Sounders won their first MLS Cup title Saturday night after a heroic performance from Swiss goalkeeper Stefan Frei. The Sounders played without their most recognisable player, Clint Dempsey, in below-freezing temperatures for what will go down as one of the most improbable victories in Major League Soccer’s 21-year history.
After being outshot by Toronto FC 19-3 on the night, the Sounders kept the match scoreless, taking the Reds to penalties where Seattle prevailed 5-4 after six rounds of spot-kicks. Frei finished the match with seven saves over 120 minutes and added another in the shootout on a tame effort from captain Michael Bradley. Toronto left full-back Justin Morrow smacked his effort against the crossbar to set up Panamanian Roman Torres’ winner on Seattle’s sixth attempt to send the travelling Seattle contingent into delirium.
MLS Cup man of the match
Frei’s heroics earned him Man of the Match accolades and of his seven saves, none were better than his sprawling effort to paw away Jozy Altidore’s perfect looping header that was destined for the top corner in the second extra-time period. Some pundits have tabbed Frei as a successor to Tim Howard and Brad Guzan as the USA goalkeeper of the future, but he must first gain American citizenship before his dream can be realized.
As expected, Toronto FC came out on the front foot and their pressure was almost rewarded in the opening minutes as Altidore saw his shot from twelve yards trickle wide of the right post. The Seattle game plan was played out to perfection as they never allowed Toronto to settle in the match, forcing shot after shot from outside the area, blocking many of them before they could reach Frei’s hands.
Toronto’s defense was also on display as centre-back and former Sounder Eriq Zavaleta earned the highest praise for the Reds by effectively taking highly-rated American and 2016 MLS Rookie of the Year Jordan Morris out of the game. Just once was Morris able to get in behind the defense, only to send his low cross right to the feet of the Toronto defense in the second period of extra time.
Nicolas Lodeiro, who was instrumental in the Sounders’ comeback from the bottom of the Western Conference to the end-of-season playoffs, was also limited in his attempts at making his mark on the game as the Toronto midfield pressured him at every opportunity.
Many Toronto supporters are left to wonder whether or not the injection of midseason signing Tosaint Ricketts could have come a bit earlier in the match as he was brought on for Italian playmaker Sebastian Giovinco after a muscle cramp forced him off in extra time. Ricketts’ pace and creativity gave the exhausted Seattle defense fits in the later stages of the match, culminating in a blistering run to the end line to set up Altidore’s failed header who was left with hands on head as Frei made what seemed like an impossible save to keep the score level at 0-0.
Twenty minutes earlier, Toronto substitute Benoit Cheyrou was introduced to the match by head coach Greg Vanney in an attempt to provide an offensive spark, but both of his shots were saved by the man of the hour. The Frenchman and former Olympique Marseille stalwart scored the series winner in the second leg against Montreal just 90 seconds after coming on, but Saturday would be Seattle’s night as they hoisted the Philip F. Anschutz trophy on a frozen BMO Field.
Saturday’s final marks the first time a team failed to register a shot on goal in the championship match, as all three of Seattle’s shots ended up off frame. The old adage proved true as offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
Seattle’s win also qualifies them as MLS cup winners for the 2017-2018 CONCACAF Champions’ League, the North American version of the UEFA Champions’ League. An MLS team has yet to win the competition as Mexican teams have dominated the tournament since its inception, Real Salt Lake being the lone American side to reach the final in 2011, only to lose 3-2 on aggregate to Monterrey.
Major League Soccer now turns its collective head toward the outcome of the MLS Expansion Draft, which will see expansion clubs Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC select five players each from a list of “unprotected” players on each of the league’s 20 rosters. Teams are allowed to protect eleven players with homegrown and Generation Adidas signings being automatically protected. Each team can only lose one player in the draft; as such, once a player from a team has been selected, all other players on that team’s roster who were left unprotected are subsequently ineligible to be selected.
Toronto have chosen to leave Tosaint Ricketts unprotected and is a favorite to be selected along with Montreal midfielder Harry Shipp. Seattle, predictably, have protected Stefan Frei.
Ben Phelps coaches at Augusta Arsenal