Despite a great effort from Minnesota United, it was the Seattle Sounders who showed once again why they’ve been the dominant team in the West for the past few years with a fourth trip to MLS Cup in the last five years.
Here are three takeaways from the epic Western Conference Final.
The Sounders way
It’s not luck, it’s not coincidence and it’s not just one of those things that happen. The Sounders' incredible comeback against Minnesota United was the result of something that is so deeply established in the club’s DNA — we are the Sounders and winning is an expectation at this club.
That mentality was ingrained in me as a young rookie during the club’s expansion year in 2009 and every player who has played for the club since, would have gone through the same indoctrination. You don’t just win three consecutive US Open Cups in your first three years as an MLS club and you don’t just make the playoffs every single year of your existence if there isn’t a deep-rooted drive for winning from the ownership down to the players. You don’t just score three goals in 18 minutes to save your season if there isn’t something powerful deeply entrenched in the club’s DNA that demands winning games and trophies as the bare minimum.
We can talk about Brian Schmetzer’s subs and the fact that two of them scored, and while that was obviously very important, this win wasn’t just the result of things that happened in this one game — it was the result of a club who entered MLS in 2009 and decided they would set the bar as high as possible from Day One, and then spend every following day trying to raise it some more.
How the West was won
Let’s look at how the 2020 version of the Sounders were able to turn this game around. We must give full credit to the Loons who came to play and took their opportunities well. They were well set up and showed their recent form wasn’t an anomaly, but their new normal. They are the dangerous attacking team, led by the brilliance of Emanuel Reynoso, that we have come to see in the playoffs. If they are able to add a defensive reinforcement or two, this won’t be their last Conference Final appearance.
I’ve spoken recently about the Sounders strength in depth and that’s what made the difference here. Because of how brilliant Raul Ruidiaz is, we all fall into the trap of forgetting Will Bruin is a proven 10-goal-a-year scorer in MLS. On most teams he would get a serious look as a starter because he guarantees you goals, but his misfortune in Seattle is he’s behind a player who could be the club’s best-ever striker.
Still, having the ability to bring on Bruin, along with a vastly experienced Swedish international in Gustav Svensson — who has World Cup experience — is a luxury not many teams have. That strength in depth showed itself in the last round when Shane O'Neill, who came into the season as the third-choice center back, scored the winner, and it continued to pay dividends when Svensson scored the winning goal to send Sounders fans all over the world into a frenzy.
Watch: Gustav Svensson's dramatic stoppage-time winner in Western Conference Final
I also give credit to Schmetzer for making the choice to bring on a forward for a midfielder when he did. Even at 2-0 down, a lot of coaches would be worried about the possibility of going for it too much and losing 3-0. I like coaches who are prepared to lose three or four-nil by chasing the game, if it means they have a chance to pull off a miracle 3-2 win like the Sounders did. This game was won because of depth — Plan A wasn’t working, but the Sounders, more than most teams, have the ability to go very deep on the bench and call up two proven MLS players to help turn this game around.
The game within the game at MLS Cup 2020
Seeing two coaches I know so well go head to head will not only be exciting for me, it’ll also be fascinating because at their core, they are very similar coaches. Both place a huge emphasis on tactics. They spend hours envisioning scenarios in their minds, moving magnets across the tactics board, writing up new patterns to work on with their players and watching film to try and spot a weakness in the opponent that won’t be obvious to the casual viewer. I’ve talked tactics with both over the years — during one breakfast with Caleb Porter, he spent 30 minutes moving sugar packets, cutlery and a bottle of honey to show me how he planned to play out of the back. So first and foremost, those of us who love the tactical side of football, will be in for a real treat on Saturday.
I am not going to make any prediction on which way this will go because it’s a final, it’s two formidable teams, and there’s just no way of knowing how it’ll play out. Although the result will be anyone’s guess, there is no question in my mind about the type of game we will see. Neither team will be too cautious or too reckless. There will be no parking the bus and no all-out attack from minute one. What we will see is good spells of possession for both sides, and methodical approaches in attack as they try to draw the opponent out of position through slick passing in the final third.
The Crew will have a big problem trying to contain Nico Lodeiro. Neither Darlington Nagbe nor Artur is best suited to chasing him around and trying to lock him down. It will need to be a team effort and a case of, whoever is closest to Lodeiro needs to become the primary marker in the moment. On the flip side, I don’t think the Sounders have an obvious answer for Nagbe either.
First of all, it doesn’t matter how much you press or pressure him, he can get out of pressure in tight spaces better than anyone I’ve ever seen, and once he does that, he has a great change of pace as he drives into the attacking half. His ability to do a bit of everything will make it hard for Seattle to get the ball off him, which means we can expect to see a lot of Lucas Zelarayan on the ball as well because that’s who Nagbe loves to combine with and look for.
Can the Sounders make Nagbe focus on defending so much that he can’t influence possession like usual or will he force Joao Paulo and Cristian Roldan back towards their own goal, thus limiting their connection with Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Ruidiaz? Porter and Schmetzer will spend almost every waking hour trying to answer these questions in their minds long before they lay their cards out for us all to see this weekend.
This is not my story to tell, but I do know there is a real mutual respect between the two that was forged during time spent together on a coaching course one offseason, but that doesn’t mean they won’t want to outdo one another once the bright lights come on. I think whichever coach is able to simplify their approach and doesn’t try to change too much because it’s a final, will be the one that gives their team a slight edge at kick off.
There will be key battles all over the pitch — Morris vs Harrison Afful, Ruidiaz vs Jonathan Mensah, Gyasi Zardes vs Yeimar Gomez and Pedro Santos vs Alex Roldan or Kelvin Leerdam. More than ever, whichever team wins more of their one-v-one duels will best position themselves to lift the trophy. Finals can sometimes fail to deliver because nerves get in the way, but I honestly feel we will be seeing a great game with these two teams.
Both coaches are winners, both want to win by playing an attractive brand of football, and both respect the other too much to not try to and think of every possible tactical advantage in order to gain an edge. It’s that last point, their obsession with getting the tactics and game plan right, that almost ensures we see an aesthetically pleasing game.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.