At the end of a week that saw the demise of the Cosmos, the once iconic American soccer franchise, and likely its league of choice, the North American Soccer League, Major League Soccer crowned the Seattle Sounders as its new champion on a frigid Saturday night in Toronto.
The Sounders outlasted Toronto FC on a this December night in Canada, disappointing the majority of the sellout crowd of 36,045 at BMO Field. There was history in Seattle’s victory, with the Sounders winning this battle of first-time MLS Cup finalists. And there was history too, that is less likely to turn up in the league’s future retellings as Seattle became the first team to win the title without recording a single shot on target, excepting, of course, the penalty shootout. In fact, the champions failed to record a single shot in the first half, on target or otherwise.
It was that kind of game, although there was a certain beauty in the struggle itself on a night when the game kicked off at 22 degrees. From the start, both sets of players seemed intent on taking lumps out of one another, perhaps for warmth.
Referee Alan Kelly allowed the players to play, dealing just three yellow cards in a game that might easily have seen three times that many. It wasn’t the worst strategy from the official, although Seattle hard man Ozzie Alonso surely deserved some additional sanction for the sheer persistence of his fouling, and Toronto’s Armando Cooper should have gone into Kelly’s book alongside him.
As the shot totals suggest Toronto was the better team for most of the opening 90 minutes and the extra time. Captain Michael Bradley led from the front, the back and everywhere in between, always positioned to break up Seattle’s infrequent attacks. Bradley’s U.S. MNT teammate Jozy Altidore looked like he might have it in him to extend his consecutive playoff goal-scoring streak to six games but the Sounders troika of center backs Roman Torres, Chad Marshall, and goalkeeper Stefan Frei managed to just about deny the U.S. MNT power forward.
Toronto’s third DP, Sebastian Giovinco was quiet for the most part before raising a ruckus on the sideline after being removed for TFC supersub Tosaint Ricketts in the 103rd minute. Giovinco had been visibly struggling for several minutes before he signaled to the Toronto bench, presumably for coach Greg Vanney to remove him.
Seba had been pulled late from TFC’s semifinal win over Montreal and this seemed to be a replay of that moment but on the sideline, Giovinco looked very displeased to be removed.
As it turns out, his Ricketts came close to being a difference maker for TFC. Twice. In the 107th minute, a Ricketts volley rolled tantalizingly wide of Stefan Frei’s left upright.
One minute later Ricketts sent a delicate chip into the Seattle box for Altidore. The ball might have been a touch high, or the striker may have mistimed his jump ever so slightly, whatever the reason Altidore could only float his header toward the Seattle goal.
Still, Altidore directed his shot well, perfectly it seemed, until Frei reached his left arm out, and back to swat the ball away. It was a truly remarkable save by the Seattle keeper. Frei had spent the first five years of his professional career with TFC and now he had made the save of his life, for Seattle.
Then it was penalty kicks. As dramatic as it is unfair, it had come to this. After Altidore and original MLS Sounder Brad Evans traded hits, Bradley missed.
That is part of the unfairness of this method of deciding a champion. Bradley had been excellent all game, Toronto had been the better team but these are the rules. TFC should have taken care of business before it had gotten this far.
A miss by Seattle sub-Alvaro Fernandez took Bradley off the hook but Justin Morrow’s shot found the bottom of the crossbar and the title was there for Seattle to claim.
Up stepped Roman Torres, confidently. Torres is known as a “glue guy” in the Seattle locker room. A tough guy on the field that likes to keep it light outside the lines.
Torres looked like he couldn’t wait to start the party. Taking a short run up Torres hammered his shot down the center and Seattle were champions.
Frei won the MLS Cup MVP, in a vote that vote couldn’t have been close. With the match televised nationally on Fox and not FS1 the league might have preferred something a bit more aesthetically pleasing. But you can’t pick your final, remember we’ve all seen plenty of blowout Super Bowls and rough and tumble NBA Finals.
So, as we extend our congratulations to Seattle and say better luck next year to Toronto, spare a thought for the Cosmos and the NASL.