Cup finals are notoriously cagey and tight and frenetic and vicious. So it was in the beginning, so it was in the end and so, it seems, it will be forever and ever, amen.
The Seattle Sounders justifiably don't care much about that right now, because on Saturday night they did what they had to: They took a beating, they took on the cold and they shut out the high-powered Toronto FC attack en route to the franchise's first ever MLS Cup title, winning 5-4 on penalties after a scoreless, relentless and aesthetically unsatisfying 120 minutes.
This was a game hyped in poetry and played in prose. Elbows were thrown, No. 10s were hacked, passes were attempted and only sporadically completed. Here's how it all happened:
• This is the greatest save in MLS Cup history:
Stefan Frei won MLS Cup MVP largely because of that (he made some other great saves as well, but come on... this is the one we'll all remember). That header from Jozy Altidore was perfect, and I'm not sure there are three other 'keepers in the league who can get to this ball.
There's not much to analyze here. Just watch it on loop forever if you're a Sounders fan, because this is LeBron's chasedown block on Andre Iguodala or Willie Mays's over-the-shoulder catch against Vic Wertz or insert whatever relevant NFL or NHL play you'd like as a comparison.
Sometimes you win because you're the better team, and other times you win because you manage not to lose. The only reason Seattle managed not to lose is because Frei, in the biggest moment, made the biggest play of the night.
• The Sounders didn't register a single shot on goal, the first time that's happened in Cup history. Their inability to build through central midfield and lack of purchase on the flanks should be entirely credited to TFC, who were absolutely smothering in their 3-5-2 high pressure. The Reds generated 19 shots, including seven on goal, and made every play they needed to in order to prevent Seattle countering in the other direction.
It really was a masterful defensive performance from the Reds, save for finding that final touch. Much of the credit there should go to Frei (duh), but also to Roman Torres, Chad Marshall and Ozzie Alonso for their emergency defense.
That said... I thought TFC head coach Greg Vanney made a big mistake in not bringing Tosaint Ricketts on earlier. One of the reasons that Torres, Marshall and Alonso were so effective is because they weren't really asked to run. Allow three veterans like that to park the bus and they'll park it, but ask them to get out of the center and chase a gazelle? That's tougher.
And I thought it showed. In the 17 minutes he played Ricketts constantly got through the Seattle lines both with and without the ball, and that opened up space for Altidore, including on the above header. I think the Reds will look back at the tape and wonder what could've been if Vanney had been more aggressive with one of his first two subs, and given the Altidore/Ricketts/Sebastian Giovinco trio at least a few minutes to run together.
• Alonso cemented his status as the best defensive midfielder in league history tonight. He also put in one of the gutsiest performances I can remember, and confirmed to ESPN's Jeff Carlisle that he took four painkilling injections in his knee before the game, and then four more at halftime.
• Everyone will remember Michael Bradley's penalty miss, which is understandable and justifiable. But he was immense for 120 minutes, cleaning up everything in the middle of the pitch and putting the clamps on Nicolas Lodeiro -- who had an entirely anonymous night, save for his thunderous penalty.
Michael Bradley had quite the game before his PK...— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) December 11, 2016
- 128 touches (27 more than anyone else)
- 81 comp passes (22 more than anyone else)
Those weren't sideways or square passes, either. Bradley repeatedly drove the ball deep into Seattle's defensive third and gave the attackers chances to make plays.
TFC defenders Drew Moor, Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund were all nearly as good. Zavaleta was able to repeatedly make stops in the open field, and the one time he didn't, Hagglund read the danger and came through the box to cut out a dangerous Jordan Morris cross for Alvaro Fernandez. Having two young defenders like that is a nice foundation for the Reds going forward.
• The Sounders also have a nice, young foundation: NCAA champion, Hermann Trophy, MLS Rookie of the Year, MLS Cup champion.
Nobody's ever done all four of those things. Morris managed it in 12 months.
• Giovinco drew foul after foul -- six in total -- but the league's best player had to be subbed (he's who came off for Ricketts) and never really looked like himself on this evening. Again, credit has to go to the Seattle defense, but it was shocking to see Giovinco's touch fail him time and again.
Bruce Arena has said several times that "the key to winning championships is that your best players have to be your best players." Giovinco was decidedly not that, and I'm certain that will eat at him for the next two-and-a-half months, just as much as it did tonight after he was subbed:
Greg Vanney confirming that Seba Giovinco asked to be subbed off. Makes reaction more understandable.pic.twitter.com/iGIyh91Cms— Faizal Khamisa (@SNFaizalKhamisa) December 11, 2016
I suspect he's been nursing an injury. I also suspect that will never really be made clear.
Either way it's nice to think of him coming back next year with more motivation.
• It's also nice to think about what this Sounders team can be with a full year together, and maybe even with Clint Dempsey coming back. They won this Cup because they could take a beating, survive and eventually thrive. With more time to integrate, and another star added to the mix, there's no reason to think they can't be playing in the final game of the season once again in 2017.
They can think about that sometime in January, I'd wager. For the time being, and at least the next few weeks...
"Tonight is gonna get weird."— zk scott (@zkscott) December 11, 2016
Stay weird, Seattle, and enjoy that Cup. You've earned it.