“Welp, that sucked, let’s forget it happened.”
–Brian Schmetzer to his team at halftime (probably)
It was the only appropriate thing to say. The Seattle Sounders got overrun in the first half. Toronto FC were brilliant and looked perfectly comfortable attempting to control the game in front of the 69,274 in the attendance. As it turned out, it didn’t matter. The Reds failed to capitalize on their dominance, and the Sounders found three goals to seize the 3-1 win in front of their spectacular home crowd. It’s Seattle’s second MLS Cup in four years.
The simple narrative description of the MLS Cup 2019 would be, “The Seattle Sounders took everything Toronto could throw at them, and they bent but never broke. It was a victory sought from grit and determination.” There’s some truth to that, but we need to get a little deeper.
TFC put together a beautiful performance. Greg Vanney watched how Seattle beat LAFC, made the educated guess that the Sounders would do the same thing on Sunday, and built a plan to combat it.
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- Tsubasa Endoh consistently ran beyond Seattle’s defenders to exploit the space exposed by their high line.
- Nicolas Benezet stretched the field horizontally to catch Seattle when they tried to trap the game to one side.
- Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio ate up second balls in the middle of the field to ensure Seattle couldn’t run in transition.
- Toronto used a faux press – a high line of confrontation without attempting to get pressure on the ball, but rather directing Seattle into pockets – to make Seattle uncomfortable from the start.
Seattle didn’t have answers to any of it. Toronto pinned Seattle in their own half through patient possession and quick reactions to loose balls.
At the same time, Toronto’s main problem caught up them: They didn’t have the ability to turn their dominance into chances. Without Jozy Altidore, who didn’t start due to injury for the fourth straight game, Toronto lacked a goalscorer on the field. Alejandro Pozuelo played the striker position well again, but often looked to initiate the play rather than finish it. Toronto often looked like a team trying to chop down a tree with a blunt ax — it wasn’t out of their reach to bring it down through sheer effort, but it would be a long process.
Ultimately, it took too long. The Sounders, who have a team full of players who can make a game-winning play, got it through right back Kelvin Leerdam. It was against the run of play, but not entirely unexpected. Even as Toronto controlled possession, it felt like Seattle were equally likely to score.
The goal was helped by the luck of deflection or two, but it also came from a halftime adjustment by Schmetzer. The Sounders swapped their wingers in the second half, moving Joevin Jones to the left and Jordan Morris to the right. Leedram's run followed a typical Morris outside-in pattern on the right side; Leerdam's space probably won't have been there with Jones on his side. The Sounders need more than encouraging words at halftime, and Schmetzer provided it.
Seattle's four anchors in the team – starting in goal with Stefan Frei, though the central backs Kim Kee-Hee and Roman Torres, and up into defensive midfielder Gustav Svensson – were the home side's best four players on the field. They didn't do anything pretty – well, Frei's first half save on Benezet was pretty – but they owned their space. When a header came their way, they won it; when someone dribbled into their zone, they got in the way. The Sounders needed them to make plays, and they delivered.
As we've learned time after time from the Seattle Sounders in the last four years, as long as they have breath in lungs and their best players on the field, they will find a way to win the game. They have so many weapons and so much experience that someone will figure it out. We saw it again Sunday afternoon on a typical Seattle day at CenturyLink Field. The best winners of modern MLS won again – it's become the most predictable pattern in Major League Soccer – and lifted their second Cup in four years. Congratulations to the Seattle Sounders, a club and fanbase that continues to push the bar.