TUKWILA, Wash. – Roman Torres is at the heart of one of the few lineup questions swirling around either of this year’s MLS Cup participants: Will Kim Kee-hee be partnered with the big Panamanian in the Seattle Sounders’ central defense, as he has for two of their three playoff games to date, or will Xavier Arreaga get the nod as he did in the upset win over LAFC in the Western Conference Final?
Furthermore, what is Torres’ wider future in Seattle as he reaches the latter stages of a contract that pays him north of $700,000 a season, according to MLS Players Union documents? Will the iconic penalty-kick hero of their 2016 MLS Cup triumph over the same Toronto FC remain in Rave Green going forward?
Valid questions, perhaps, but Sounders president Garth Lagerwey wanted to talk about another angle entirely when the strapping, jovial center back was brought up during Seattle’s training session at Starfire Sports Complex on Friday ahead of Sunday's 2019 MLS Cup Final (3 pm ET | ABC, Univision, TUDN, TVAS, TSN).
“Let me tell you a story about Roman,” grinned Lagerwey. “He’s amazing. We go down to LAFC, right, and we’ve got a 19% chance to win according to the computer models. There is one guy on the team that packs his swim goggles. So we beat LAFC, we go in [to the locker room] and Roman is shirtless, like this with his goggles on – that we have not provided him – that he pulled out of his bag in the locker room and he’s ready to party, he’s ready to start dancing. So he is lively, he is optimistic, he is upbeat – he’s great, right?”
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Hulking yet quirky, festive and lovable, Torres, 33, just seems to have this effect on people. Despite missing large chunks of his Seattle career to injury and international duty, he’s been at the center of some of the club’s proudest moments. He returned from a serious knee injury in time to anchor the 2016 championship run, and has defied the advancing age that’s seen him lose a step of pace but maintain his dogged defensive chops.
And Torres will always be a footballing icon in his home country thanks to his decisive role in booking Panama’s unlikely World Cup debut, ranging forward in astonishing fashion to lash home the goal that sealed Los Canaleros’ stunning climb past the United States and into the 2018 Concacaf Hexagonal’s final automatic qualification berth.
It seems likely that the Sounders brain trust weren’t quite all smiles over the summer when receiving the news that Torres had violated the MLS banned-substances policy by testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance, a stinging setback that drew a 10-game suspension and left Seattle shorthanded at the back during a busy phase. But he returned near season’s end to score a key game-winner vs. Minnesota United on Decision Day presented by AT&T and seems to have retained the trust of teammates and club officials alike.
“Being on the field again is very important. These are challenges for me, and God knows why he does things,” Torres said in a one-on-one conversation with FutbolMLS.com this week. “Right now I am calm, and I am well physically and mentally. When one works, sacrifices and strives, I believe that God rewards him. I am very blessed by the Lord, so I have that full peace of mind that everything will work out well on the day of the match.”
Part enforcer, part teddy bear, the strapping defender provides a joyful levity in a Sounders locker room full of big, intense personalities, without compromising the intensity he’s always brought to the pitch over his 15-year career.
“[Sounders head coach] Brian [Schmetzer] is kind of mild-mannered, right, every day is even-keeled and that’s a great quality about him. But Roman can get him fired up,” revealed Lagerwey. “And Roman makes everybody happy, and yes, he’s made an impact on the field – he’s been in and he’s been out, he’s been back in. He’s another guy that’s played in an awful lot of big games – the last time he played Toronto he was beating them in sudden-death penalty kicks on the road. That’s a really good quality. But he’s been instrumental in our locker room and as part of our culture and really keeping the group loose, especially ahead of some of these big moments.”
Lagerwey called Torres’ Sounders tenure “a four-year ride” with “a not-straightforward path,” and given that, who would bet against him turning up as an MLS Cup protagonist yet again?
“It feels like he’s always there in the end, and that gives you a sense of trust and reliance on him that in that big moment he’s going to come through,” said Lagerwey. “The man’s built for big moments and hopefully he’s got another couple in him.”
Torres himself said he’d prefer not to endure the agony of another shootout, yet sounds ready to seize the moment.
“I want to have that concentration, that order, to be a leader on the field, as I always have been – and why not? – score a goal that day,” he said. “It would be nice for me personally and for the entire Panamanian people, who are always paying attention, the people of Colombia, and Seattle.”
Seattle reportedly hold a 2020 option on Torres, though the club may explore ways to restructure his deal in a more cap-friendly way. Though reports have occasionally connected him to a return to the Colombian top flight, where he first made his name with the likes of Cortulua and Millionarios, he says he wants to retire in Rave Green.
“I am very happy,” he said. “My family, my children are very happy here, and hopefully things can happen so I can stay here in Seattle.”