On December 10, 2016, the Seattle Sounders capture their first MLS Cup, Major League Soccer's championship trophy, defeating Toronto FC at Toronto's BMO Field. The championship caps a tumultuous year that saw the Sounders change head coaches, lose their best player in midseason, and then roar from near the bottom of the standings to the top. The Sounders win the game on penalty kicks after the teams play 120 minutes without scoring.
Taking the Long Way
The Sounders had made the playoffs in each of their seven previous seasons, but after their first 20 matches of 2016, that streak was in danger. They were in ninth place in the 10-team Western Conference. On July 26, Sigi Schmid (b. 1953) was replaced as head coach by his assistant, Brian Schmetzer (b. 1962). One day later, the team announced it had signed Nicolás Lodeiro (b. 1989), an attacking midfielder from Boca Juniors of Buenos Aires. Those big changes produced a huge turnaround.
The Sounders had started the year with only six wins in their first 20 games; after the coaching change and Lodeiro's arrival, they won 8, tied 4, and lost only 2 to earn a home playoff game. They even overcame the loss of Clint Dempsey (b. 1983), their star forward, whose season ended after he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat on August 21. Their defense was bolstered on August 28 by the return of center defender Román Torres (b. 1983), who had been sidelined with a knee injury.
Lodeiro was named MLS Newcomer of the Year despite having played less than half the season. Jordan Morris (b. 1994), a homegrown forward from Mercer Island who led the team in scoring, was named MLS Rookie of the Year.
The Sounders made the playoffs as fourth seed in the West. They beat Sporting Kansas City 1-0 in the knockout round, toppled top-seeded FC Dallas by a 4-2 aggregate score in the two-game conference semifinals, and bested the Colorado Rapids to win the Western Conference championship. The Sounders beat the Rapids 2-1 at home at CenturyLink Field, and clinched the title with a 1-0 victory at Colorado. Morris, who had been sick before the game and was banged up during it, provided the winning goal. For the first time in their history, the Sounders had made it to the MLS championship game.
Winning the Cup
Their opponent was Toronto FC, and the setting was Toronto's BMO Field, in front of a sellout crowd of 36,045. The weather was sub-freezing and windy, and the home team was hot, having scored 17 goals in its five playoff games, compared to only seven scored by Seattle. Toronto's biggest threats were forwards Sebastian Giovinco (b. 1987) and Jozy Altidore (b. 1989). To contain them, the Sounders would rely on defenders Torres and Chad Marshall (b. 1984) and goaltender Stefan Frei (b. 1986).
Toronto took control from the outset and had numerous chances to score but couldn't. The Sounders were stymied on offense. Their defense, however, was rising to the challenge. As the temperature dipped into the low 20s, frustration mounted on both sides and the action got increasingly physical. The game was scoreless after the regulation 90 minutes, and headed into overtime.
The score was still 0-0 in the 108th minute when Altidore broke free in front of Seattle's goal, took a crossing pass from Tosaint Ricketts (b. 1987) in full stride and lofted a header toward the upper right corner of the net. It looked certain to get past Frei, who was near the middle of the goal, but he launched himself to his left and upward, his left arm fully extended, and swatted the ball away. It was the play of the game, the save of the season. Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer (b. 1966) called it "something from the heavens" (Goff).
After 30 minutes of overtime -- 120 minutes total -- there still was no score. Toronto had outshot Seattle 19-3, but Seattle's back line had kept the Sounders alive, with Frei making seven saves. Seattle, meanwhile, had been unable to get a single shot on goal. So the championship would be determined by a shootout, with players from each team alternating penalty kicks. After five rounds, the score was 4-4 and the tension was nearly unbearable. Then Toronto's Justin Morrow (b. 1987) sent his shot off the crossbar, giving the Sounders a chance to win. Torres quickly took the shot and made it.
Something to Celebrate
The other Sounders mobbed Torres and Frei, who was named the game's Most Valuable Player, while Sounders fans watching the game in Seattle poured into Occidental Square and the area outside CenturyLink Field to celebrate. The next day a crowd greeted the team plane when it landed at Boeing Field, singing and cheering as the players hoisted the MLS Cup. The celebration resumed two days later with a spirited parade. The players and coaches rode in trolley cars through Pioneer Square and downtown to Seattle Center, where thousands, most dressed in Sounders green, gathered for a rally to salute the new champions.
In addition to bringing Seattle its first MLS championship, the Sounders had made a bit of bizarre league history. They had taken the fewest shots of any team in an MLS final and they were the first team to win the MLS Cup without having had any shots on goal -- perhaps a fitting finale for a season that had sunk so low and then reached such unexpected heights.