On November 10, 2019, the Seattle Sounders win their second MLS Cup -- the Major League Soccer championship -- by defeating Toronto FC 3-1 in front of 69,274, the biggest crowd ever at CenturyLink Field. It is an improbable end to a challenging season for coach Brian Schmetzer (b. 1962). His team had started the year by winning seven and tying five of its first 13 matches, but slumped in May and June, losing four straight. Its final record was 16 wins, 10 losses and 8 ties, good enough for second in the Western Conference, but a whopping 16 points behind first-place Los Angeles FC.
The Sounders' difficulties included the retirement in May of three-time MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall (b. 1984) because of knee injuries; a season-ending knee injury to forward Will Bruin (b. 1989) in June; and a 10-game performance-enhancing drug suspension for defender Roman Torres (b. 1986) beginning in August.
More disruptive were call-ups. During each international window endorsed by FIFA, the sport's governing body, at least eight Sounders left Seattle to play for their national teams.
When the regulars were back, the Sounders rounded into shape. Standouts included high-priced forward Raul Ruidiaz (b. 1990), who led the team in scoring; Mercer Island, Washington, product Jordan Morris (b. 1994), who returned after missing all of the 2018 season, moved from forward to wing, and was a close second on the team in scoring; and midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro (b. 1989), who directed the offense and had 17 assists in 28 games.
A Major Upset
In their first game under Major League Soccer's new single-elimination playoff format, the Sounders survived a tense match at home against Dallas FC, winning 4-3 in overtime. Morris provided the game-winner at the 113-minute mark with a header, his third goal of the game. Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei (b. 1986) made five sprawling saves in the extra periods as Dallas, which twice had rallied to tie the score, attacked to the end. "We've got the best Jordan Morris we've ever seen right now," general manager Garth Lagerwey (b. 1972) said. "Now we can score in a whole bunch of different ways. Jordan can strike fear even from a spacing perspective. That creates more room for Nico (Lodeiro) to operate. That creates more room for Raul to operate" ("Morris Embraced …").
The Sounders beat Real Salt Lake 2-0 in the Western Conference semifinals, with midfielder Gustav Svensson (b. 1987) scoring his first goal of the season in the 64th minute and Lodeiro adding an insurance goal in the 81st minute. The victory marked the end of the 20-year career of RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando (b. 1979), the league career leader in wins, saves, shutouts, and games, and propelled the Sounders to the conference finals for the third time in four years.
Their opponent, Los Angeles Football Club, was arguably the best team in MLS history. It amassed a league-record 72 points during the regular season, scored a league-record 84 goals, and outscored its opponents by a league-record 48 goals. Its captain, Carlos Vela (b. 1989), was the league's Most Valuable Player. He had 34 goals himself, yet another record total. LAFC also would be playing at home, having earned the right by ousting the LA Galaxy. If the Sounders had an edge, it was in big-match experience.
LAFC midfielder Eduard Atuesta (b. 1997) opened the scoring in the 17th minute, but that turned out to be the home team's only big moment. Ruidiaz answered with a goal five minutes later, and Seattle seized the lead just four minutes after that on a goal by Lodeiro. Ruidiaz scored again in the 64th minute, and the Sounders headed back to Seattle with a stunning 3-1 victory. "We never stopped believing we could win," Schmetzer said. "… We could have gone into a shell. We could have sat back and accepted we would lose, but we didn't" ("Unshakeable Sounders …").
The Sounders got lucky a day later when Toronto FC upset defending league champion Atlanta United in the Eastern Conference finals. Had Atlanta won, the title game would have been played in Atlanta. But Seattle outranked Toronto in the overall league standings, and so would host the championship for the first time. CenturyLink Field -- including its third level, not usually open for soccer -- quickly sold out.
The 2019 final was the third time Toronto and Seattle played for the championship. The Sounders won on penalty kicks in 2016; Toronto's Reds won 2-0 in 2017, marking the second straight title game where Seattle did not score in regulation time. With the league championship once again on the line, Toronto arrived in Seattle having won four straight matches. Its most recent loss was way back in August.
Seattle was primed for the occasion. The crowd of 69,264 was the biggest for a soccer game in state history, topping the 58,128 who saw the Sounders of the North American Soccer League play the New York Cosmos with legendary Brazilian star Pele in the since-demolished Kingdome in 1976, not to mention every home game played by the National Football League's Seahawks since CenturyLink opened in 2002. It was the second-biggest crowd in MLS history.
Although the home crowd created a din of support for the Sounders, Toronto dominated the first half. Led by midfielder Michael Bradley (b. 1987), the Reds controlled the ball for 65 percent of the time. Still, they were unable to score. The game's first goal came in the 57th minute when a shot by Sounders defender Kelvin Leerdam (b. 1990) deflected off a Toronto defender and into the Reds' net. Three minutes later Schmetzer sent midfielder Victor Rodriguez (b. 1989) into the game, and Rodriguez scored in the 76th minute for a 2-0 Sounders lead. Ruidiaz added another goal in the 90th minute, fueling the mounting celebration in the stands. Toronto forward Jozy Altidore (b. 1989) answered with a goal in stoppage time, ending the scoring. Seattle had a 3-1 victory and its second MLS Cup.
Time to Celebrate
Rodgriguez, who had missed much of the season because of a hamstring injury and a concussion, was named Most Valuable Player of the match. Frei and Torres led a defense that stymied the Toronto attack. Ruidiaz boosted his playoff totals to four goals and three assists in four games.
Seattle staged a victory parade Tuesday, November 12. Although it was just two days after the championship game, 11 Sounders already had departed for international duty with their national teams. Rodriguez had gone home to see his family. The only starters still in town were team captain Lodeiro, Frei, and defender Kim Kee-Hee. Schmetzer signed autographs along the parade route. At concluding ceremonies at Seattle Center, Frei and Lodeiro took turns hoisting the championship trophy and thanked the team's fans for their support.
Schmetzer was near tears after the victory. "They (the players) never quit. The fans never stopped believing. So I am very, very happy for the city and the fans," he said ("Big Crowd …"). His connection with the Sounders dated back to 1980 when he signed with the North American Soccer League club directly out of Seattle's Nathan Hale High School. He had guided the Sounders to three MLS finals in four years as head coach, and now he had two championships to show for it.