Fans who walked away from the 2016 MLS Cup thinking Toronto FC were the better team on that night, despite losing in penalty kicks to the Seattle Sounders, can make a pretty good case.
Greg Vanney’s side had 19 shots, seven of which were on target and two were just inches away from finding the back of the net (Tosaint Rickett’s volley from 13 yards out and Jozy Altidore’s header both in extra time). In addition, The Reds had 8.4 percent more possession over 120 minutes and were more efficient with their time on the ball, completing a higher percentage of their passes.
It is also a fact of the matter, however, that Seattle had an unbelievable defensive outing as they withstood everything Toronto threw at them.
The Sounders blocked 10 of TFC’s shots— laying their bodies on the line in the run of play or in a wall to do so. Attackers Nelson Valdez and Jordan Morris sacrificed opportunities to go forward, prioritizing defensive headers off of Michael Bradley's free kicks instead. And Seattle’s work rate stood out all night, with players like Osvaldo Alonso tirelessly tracking back any time Toronto threatened with the ball.
There are no doubts these crucial details and subtler decisions factored in to Seattle holding TFC scoreless for the first time in the playoffs.
However, these particulars were minute in comparison to the significance of the contributions of Stefan Frei, Roman Torres and Chad Marshall. Had these three made any less a commitment to protecting their goal, Seattle’s defensive stand would have fallen short.
The two center backs and goalkeeper provided the foundation that underpinned Seattle’s championship-winning defensive performance.
Frei had his best game of the playoffs, surpassing his previous Audi Player Index high of 990 points with a score of 1254 in MLS Cup. The Sounders' goalkeeper was the top overall player in the championship match and the only to pass the 1000-point threshold. He made seven saves through 120 minutes— none more spectacular than on Altidore’s header, and stepped up to stop Bradley’s spot kick during the shootout.
Following Frei’s lead, Torres had his top Audi Player Index tally of the postseason in MLS Cup as well. Prior to penalty kicks, Torres had a score of 333— the second most of all Sounders players.
Marshall, with the third most points for Brian Schmetzer’s side, followed just behind his fellow center back with a total 330 points over the same 120 minutes.
This center back duo were dominant. They eliminated passing lanes into target players, intercepting the ball a combined six times. The two of them relieved pressure for their team with a total of 9 clearances. They also kept Sebastian Giovinco and Altidore quieter than any other team during the playoffs— holding Giovinco to his lowest Audi Player Index output this postseason and Altidore, who had seemed unstoppable, goalless.
Seattle not Derailed by Alterations
Through all of Seattle’s roster dynamics this year (drafting Morris, losing Clint Dempsey, acquiring Nicolas Lodeiro, promoting Schmetzer, etc), "continuity" is not a word I would use to describe the team.
Despite primarily attacking-minded personnel changes, it was the Sounders' defense that ultimately provided a stable platform for them to have a chance to win it all.