SEATTLE — Ask me again in 10 years.
That was Seattle Sounders’ coach Brian Schmetzer’s reaction to being asked what victory in Sunday’s MLS Cup final in front of the biggest soccer crowd in Seattle history meant to the city and organization.
And understandably so. For no one will the significance of Sunday’s win at CenturyLink Field be more keenly felt.
Schmetzer is inexorably linked to the history of soccer in the city. He has been there through the dark days and the good since joining the Sounders as a player almost four decades ago. There was a reason he walked into his post-game press conference wearing a soaked T-shirt that read simply “family.” A reason why he walked in fully in celebration mode, swigging from a can of Heineken. A reason why he was soon in tears, barely able to get out the words that he was “very, very happy and proud for the city and the fans.”
The occasion, the first time Seattle has hosted its team in MLS Cup, was so big that it almost derailed Seattle’s hopes of winning a fourth championship in four years.
“I think I got about 30 minutes of sleep and I pride myself on trying to have a hang on how to deal with butterflies, but this was such a huge moment,” goalkeeper Stefan Frei, a veteran of the Sounders’ MLS Cup victory in 2016, said in the locker room afterward.
The noise from 69,274 spectators decked almost entirely in Rave Green was deafening as the teams emerged from the tunnel. Even the most experienced of those in the lineups could not help but be taken out of the tunnel-vision that usually takes over a top player’s mentality on the field.
“I feel like the older I get the more emotional I get, but I definitely had some teary eyes, some puffs to get myself back to normal before the game started because it’s a site to be seen to know that this stadium is here for you, to support you,” said Frei. “It gives you goosebumps just to think about it.”
And it showed on the pitch. Seattle, expected to be the protagonists against Toronto FC in front of their own fans, looked decidedly nervy in the first half. Passes went astray, touches were loose.
“I think there were some nerves there in the first half, I think there were some plays where guys needed to be a little bit more composed,” acknowledged Schmetzer afterward.
Added Frei: “I think that pressure of wanting it so bad and wanting to share this moment so bad with our fans was difficult. It was definitely difficult.”
Toronto dominated possession through the first 45 minutes and beyond, out-possessing the Sounders almost two-to-one. The better chances may have fallen Seattle’s way but it was clear which team was having the better of things.
“Obviously, the first 45-50 minutes didn’t really go our way, they were on top of us,” Sounders winger and Seattle native Jordan Morris said. “Maybe that was nerves from us, maybe that was, I don’t know, give a lot of credit to Toronto, they made it difficult.”
So difficult that the previously raucous Sounders fans had been noticeably quiet at the start of the second half.
But in Schmetzer, the Sounders have their father figure, a man who has rarely got credit for his tactical acumen but knew the mentality of his players and sensed what his team needed in the big moment.
“We tried to settle them down at halftime,” explained Schmetzer. “The halftime speech was not ranting and raving or anything like that. It was more firm, ‘OK, this is what we need to do, this is what we’re going to try to change.”
There was a tactical change, Morris switching wings with Joevin Jones. And then, in the 57th minute, came a sea change. Off a shot from Kelvin Leerdam and the unluckiest of deflection off of TFC defender Justin Morrow, the ball found its way into the back of the Toronto net. CenturyLink Field exploded and the weight of expectation of delivering for a city that has been with them through thick and thin visibly lifted.
Seattle scored two more goals before the game was out, giving Sounders fans a chance to bask in the glory with two strikes that were all about talent rather than fortune. A consolation goal from Jozy Altidore deep into stoppage time wasn’t even recognized by the joyous, chanting wave of fans in green.
“It means everything, getting that win in front of our fans, they deserve it, it’s a super special moment," said Morris.
While winning their first MLS Cup title in 2016 was huge for a club that only joined MLS seven years earlier, it was clear this one meant even more.
“You get to share this moment with 70,000 people, obviously the love gets amplified a little bit,” said Frei. “To be able to give them this moment means everything to me.”
As for what it means for Schmetzer, the man who has seen it all? Maybe come back in a few years.