SEATTLE — The Sounders weren’t supposed to be here.
They shouldn’t have been hosting MLS Cup at a sold-out CenturyLink Field. They shouldn’t have been spraying each other in beer and champagne as they danced to salsa-infused hip-hop after beating Toronto FC handily. They shouldn’t have been crowned the champions of MLS once again.
“Some people didn’t think we’d be here at the beginning of the playoffs,” Sounders forward Jordan Morris said. “We wanted to prove we deserved to be here.”
Exactly zero Sounders were finalists for the league’s major year-end awards, such as Coach of the Year, despite Brian Schmetzer taking the Sounders to three MLS Cups in four years at the helm of the team. Instead, Los Angeles FC’s Bob Bradley won.
On the final day of the regular season, ESPN’s Five Thirty Eight forecast model gave the Sounders a 4% chance of lifting the MLS Cup. Meanwhile, LAFC had 74% odds of making the final — which they didn’t because the Sounders knocked them out of the playoffs — and 53% odds to win it all.
“Yes, maybe we didn’t have a season like LAFC, but we’re hoisting the trophy,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “Honestly, in the end I could care less how pretty we play. Screw possession and all those other stats. We got another star and that’s all that matters.”
Frei, like other Sounders players speaking to Pro Soccer USA after Sunday’s game, admitted Seattle’s performance wasn’t their best work. Toronto FC dominated possession, keeping the ball 65% of the time, and looked like the better, more dangerous team for much of the match.
It took an own goal off a Kelvin Leerdam cross that deflected off Justin Morrow’s leg to break a deadlock that felt very much in Toronto’s favor. But the end result wasn’t even close: the Sounders scored three goals in the second half and won 3-1.
It may have been brute force more than anything. It certainly wasn’t the attractive, dominant soccer other teams like Supporters Shield-winning LAFC played this year. But the Sounders, for how often they were written off and underestimated this season, kept finding ways to get results when it mattered most.
“The whole playoffs, we were down in possession, even though we played three games at home. That’s unlike Seattle, right?” Morris said. “But the fact of the matter is we won those games and we found ways to win. That’s what makes this team so special.”
Critics said the Sounders didn’t have a clear stylistic identity or didn’t have specific tactics to win games. Schmetzer didn’t exactly trumpet his own successes either, such as when he evaded a question about how the Sounders managed to beat LAFC in the Western Conference final. But he has earned a reputation in the Seattle locker room as a player coach. He’s not one to micromanage and insist his players conform to a certain approach.
“Coach Schmetzer is a guy who is gonna manage the team right. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but he’s a guy that leads by example and lets the older guys take the lead,” midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “That’s hard to do at times, to step away from coaching and let your guys play.
“Credit to him for realizing that and, in the right moment, implementing his tactics and influencing our team. But sometimes, letting your team play is the most important thing.”
Schmetzer’s hands-off approach is by design. While other coaches may get more attention for implementing a rigid system easy for fans to pick up on and identify, Schmetzer opted to empower his players to make decisions on the fly.
That makes him a different kind of coach than Bradley or Gregg Berhalter or Jesse Marsch, who have all gone on to compete on higher platforms or win year-end awards. But none of those coaches have had the level of consistent success in MLS that Schmetzer has had.
“Our coaching style is giving the players the tools to be successful,” Schmetzer said of his staff. “Our sport is fluid — there’s always things you can draw up on a chalkboard, and then it changes because of your opponent or because of the way you’re playing.
“There’s so many variables in our sport that if the players are sound tactical thinkers, those are the players I like to have.”
If there was a debate about whether the Sounders should be considered an elite team in MLS, that’s settled, according to Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey. The next phase of the discussion is whether the Sounders ought to be considered a dynasty.
The Sounders aren’t quite there yet, Lagerwey said after sidestepping his way out of a beer shower in the locker room — but the club is well on its way.
“You’ve got to win at least three to do that,” Lagerwey said of the dynasty question. “But we’re on the map. You can’t ever take this away. We’ve been the best team for the last few years. Doing it front of the home crowd, in front of 69,000 people — one the biggest sporting events in Seattle history — now we’re not just relevant in MLS, we’re relevant in this city.”