Brian Schmetzer, his light-blue sweater still spotless and neat, picked up a single beer and paused in the corner of his team’s locker room. The Seattle Sounders had just lifted their first MLS Cup at Toronto’s BMO Field, and chaos reigned – champagne covered very conveniently tarp-covered surface. But the team’s head coach had just two words, softly uttered under his breath: “Gee, whiz.”
Indeed, Schmetzer. Gee whiz – under his stewardship, the Sounders turned around a season that looked, at one point, almost impossible to culminate in playoffs. Not only that, but gee whiz, under his stewardship, it turned into an unbeaten run and a Cup. And on top of that – gee whiz once more – the Sounders managed it with an 0-0 score after extra time, and with no shots on target. Go figure: Fitting with everything else bonkers and unlikely about the Seattle’s 2016 season, the final drama came down to a penalty-kick shootout.
“It’s going to take a while to sink in,” Schmetzer said in a press conference, once he had quietly strolled beyond the cacophony. “What I do know, or the words I can come up with is I’m awfully proud of those guys.”
The game’s entire excitement boiled down to two distinct parts: First, there was the Sounders’ Stefan Frei’s infinity-armed save on Jozy Altidore in the 108th minute. And then, there came the shootout.
At various points, the penalty kicks could have gone either way, too. Both Toronto’s Altidore and the Sounders’ Brad Evans converted – but then TFC’s Michael Bradley, his team’s second to shoot, bottled it. The Sounders then kept up a one-goal advantage – as their Andreas Ivanschitz and TFC’s Benoit Cheyrou converted – until, then, it was Seattle’s turn to miss one. (This time, it was Flaco Fernandez.)
Hope lingered alive for either side until almost the very end – when TFC’s Justin Morrow pinged one off the crossbar, and the Sounders’ Roman Torres netted the game-winner. The anything-can-happen feeling is perhaps why the silence at BMO on Morrow’s miss, and then at the final whistle, felt so deafening – and why at least one media member in the auxiliary press box openly wept afterwards in the frigid wind.
The stark drama of those last moments almost made up for the frustration of the minutes before. And indeed, the resulting pain of more than 35,000 sad home fans felt solid in the air. Compared to the buoyant and loud mood at BMO pre-game, the crowds filed out with very Canadian-seeming efficiency and quiet.
Down in the Sounders’ sticky locker room – a layer of sprayed beer added to the champagne sludge – folks reacted a little, shall we say … differently. The team alternately group chanted for bonuses and yelled into FaceTime in various languages and accents. In another corner, Seattle owner Drew Carey offered up smiles and banter. “I have a message to the people in Portland,” he said. “Get used to this!”
And in a corner, the Sounders’ compact, recently arrived star Nicolas Lodeiro waxed modest about his contribution to the season, and to the shootout itself. “I was pretty convinced of where I was going to put it, and I didn’t think of much else,” he said. “I was really confident, and I did it for my teammates.”
It’ll surprise exactly zero Sounders fans that in the middle of and elbow-to-elbow human knot in the middle of it all, under an intermittent sparkling-wine fountain, ruled Torres. Of course, not only was the solid Panamanian defender leading his pals in his usual post-game dance-along, only this time, celebrating the game-winning PK to boot.
“A lot was going through my head. I just asked God to give me the ability to control where I was going to kick, and control of myself,” he said in Spanish. In fact, if anything did go through his head, it was an attempt to forget his penalty kick practice the day before – during which he missed. “That wasn’t going through my head at all,” he said. “I guess I did get that good control.”
Even more dramatic? Torres – and the rest of the squad – didn't even know who would be stepping up to the spot at that point. Schmetzer, in his press conference, said he had only planned the first five to take penalty kicks. "We handed out the first five and then we were trying to signal on the field because we couldn’t walk out onto the field," he said, referring to his wild gesticulating just before Torres' turn. He decided, right then, to give the Panamian the potential game-winner. "He swears he was a forward and that’s why he was confident taking that penalty kick."
In the end, too, at least the result of the shootout proved enough for a clearly thankful Schmetzer. (“Keep doing what you do,” he told one reporter as he patted him emphatically on the back.)
“They’re obviously really happy in that locker room,” he said at the presser. “The championship is for all of those guys … But I’m really happy for the fans. I think they're the ones who really truly deserve it. I think the club, the Seattle Sounders – the relationship between the fans and the players is what makes this clubs so special. So I’m happy for them.”