MLS Cup Playoffs

Seattle Celebrates the MLS Champion Sounders

The Seattle Sounders are rallying downtown to Seattle Center tomorrow. Seattle is a city of champions!

The parade starts at Westlake at 11am and the rally in Seattle Center at 12:30pm! Be there to cheer on the boys in Rave Green!!

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SEATTLE SOUNDERS MLS CUP CHAMPIONS!!!

Your Seattle Sounders are the 2016 MLS Cup Champions. I cannot believe I just typed that. Can’t believe it.

That was a game only a mother could love. After 120 minute of mostly hideous soccer, Seattle advanced on penalties. That’s right. Seattle got really lucky and frankly, it’s about damn time. As Richard Farley wrote:

[The Sounders] were good enough to lose out on another perverse tiebreaker two years ago, ending in the conference finals on the wrong end of away goals. They were on the wrong end in 2012, too, when a would-be fourth-straight Open Cup went to Sporting after penalty kicks. On Saturday, one of soccer’s insanities finally broke in Seattle’s favor.

PKs last year against Dallas. The Red Card Wedding. The Johannson hand ball in ‘12. That USOC Final. Remember all the times the ball just didn’t bounce our way? It finally did. Luck is on our side and we’ll take it, championship #1, and run.

Bold Prediction: MLS CUP Champion Seattle Sounders

The Seattle Sounders will beat Toronto FC today in the MLS Cup Final.

BOLD PREDICTION: My only real fear for this afternoon’s game is being overconfident. As has been discussed, Toronto has no defense, the Eastern Conference historically stinks, and the Sounders have the grit to see them through. All of this adds up, regardless of the Jozy/Giovinco/Bradley three-headed monster and home field advantage, to a resounding Sounders win.

Will Seattle keep the Reds, and their juggernaut offense, off the scoreboard… probably not. But will the Reds put 7 past us like they did against NYCFC and Montreal, hell no. Toronto was dependent on set-piece goals to dispatch the Impact, and there is no way they get multiple headers past the twin towers of Marshall and Torres. Plus Nico Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Joevin Jones have the speed to exploit the suspect Toronto backline and Ozzie, injury or not, can bog Giovinco down.

Lastly, looking at the matchup from earlier this year, the rudderless mid-Summer Sounders went to BMO and got a result 1-1. Have the Reds greatly improved since that game. Meh. The Sounders of course, are on a meteoric rise. Sounders in a sloppy one 3-2. Champs, baby!

Seattle Sounders: Play Hurt, Do Your Job, Win

The Seattle Sounders have the sparkle of fortune about them as they prepare to square off against Toronto FC in Saturday’s MLS Cup. As the national spotlight shines, ever so briefly, on MLS and the Sounders, the professional sportswriters are busy crafting narratives. Seattle as a team of destiny is one narrative with a lot of gravity, but as stories go, it is mostly fiction.

The key thing taking the shine off Seattle as “destined” is that key players are nursing knocks ahead of the final. Chief among these is Ozzie Alonso. For a player nicknamed “Honey Badger” and (briefly and notoriously) “Energizer Bunny,” Ozzie has had some kryptonite moments. The 2014 MLS Playoffs, the last time we entered the playoffs as destiny’s darling, the most glaring. After beating L.A. in a home-and-home, winning the Supporters’ Shield and bragging rights, Ozzie got hurt and couldn’t save us from an embarrassing early exit at the hands of the same L.A. squad. Ozzie is still listed as Questionable, but will undoubtedly play. He may not be 100%, but playing hurt is nothing new to this Seattle squad.

The Rave Green have been black and blue all season. Much has been made of how Seattle lucked into the final. National pundits are barking about how things magically clicked for us: a missed offsides vs SKC + Mauro Diaz and Tim Howard injuries = easiest path to MLS Cup ever, right? Wrong. Seattle has battled through adversity to be here at the precipice of heady, uncharted glory. And Schmetzer deserves heaps of credit for navigating these troubled waters.

A quick survey of the ill-fortune Schmetz has had to endure: first, Aaron Kovar was a regular starter and contributor over the first 2/3s of the season, but has barely been available for selection since August. Just a few games into the post-Sigi era, and right after a brace against Portland, superstar Clint Dempsey suffers possibly career-threatening heart issues. Then Captain Brad Evans gets hurt. Then Ivanschitz, who was really coming on and doing yeoman’s work out on the flank, goes down. Then Friberg joins the walking wounded and the carousel of lineups continued (Hell, Oneil Fisher had to replace Ozzie in our last game!). Though the lineup has been in flux, the formation has been a rock.

Schmetzer has solidified the 4-2-3-1 as THE Sounders identity. Luckily, with all the injuries, depth has been stellar for Seattle all season. One of the reasons the depth has been solid has been the 4-2-3-1 formation. The Sounders have been remade in President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey’s image: they are no longer a player-dependent team, but a system-dependent team. The loss of Dempsey would’ve crippled any other Sounders squad in recent memory. Now every player knows their job, and, when called upon, they don’t have to pretend to be someone else, they just have to do that job.

Take Brad Evans’s injury, for example. With the return to fitness of Roman Torres in early September, we could afford one of B-Rad’s customary trips to the trainers. It is easy to forget now, what with Torres stepping in and dominating, that Evan was the unquestioned started at CB for much of the season. He started 21 of our first 26 games, and mostly went the full 90. Then, boom, he gets injured and hasn’t started since. This could be crippling to another team (hello, Dallas). Brad’s gotten minutes in only 6 of Seattle’s 13 subsequent matches (including the playoffs), but hasn’t played more than 20 minutes, or centerback. He now comes on in the midfield and is yet another weapon at Schmetzer’s disposal.

There are many narratives surrounding Seattle as they prepare for their date with destiny: Nico saved the season, Seattle has nothing but dumb luck, the maturation of Jordan Morris, to name a few. But the one true story Seattle has told consistently since Schmetzer took over: next man up, play hurt, do your job, win.

There Is No D in TFC: Seattle Sounders on the Attack

The hype continues as the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC prepare for MLS Cup on Saturday.

Your humble blogger is all riled up for the chance to see the Boys in Rave Green bring home the Cup. I’ve dissed the East, I’ve tossed shade at MLS policy and now I’m gonna dissect our opponent, TFC.

When you think Toronto, you think Giovinco, Altidore and Bradley. Then you think, Oh crap. We’re in trouble. Giovinco isn’t just a brand name, the wee man has 78 points (G +A) in just 67 total MLS games. That’s right, Giovinco averages over a point a game. Altidore is no slouch either in his second stint in the league, with 37 in 54. This dominance was obvious to anyone who watched TFC’s offense in the Eastern Conference clinching victory last Wednesday. The Reds were en fuego: Altidore and Giovinco slicing and dicing, Bradley running box-to-box and the Reds scoring 5 goals and 7 on aggregate. Bonkers! Surely Seattle is quaking in their green boots at the prospect of facing that offensive juggernaut.

But Toronto needs a frightening attack because their backline has always been laughable. Defense is quite the unicorn in the 6ix. Coaches have come and gone, but before Greg Vanney this season, the Reds have always been generous. Since MLS adopted the 34 game schedule in 2011, TFC averages just over 53 GA a season, or 1.56 a game. This year, TFC only conceded 39 goals (for their first season with a sub-40 GA since ’11), really helped that average. In quick contrast, the Sounders are at 40 GA a season, 1.18 a game in that span.

This past offseason, after a 3-nil drubbing by Montreal in TFC’s first taste of the playoffs, the Reds spent a lot of time and money addressing this glaring weakness. Drew Moor, Steven Beitashour, Will Johnson (ohhhhhh I hates Will Johnson) and Clint Irwin were all brought in to be the yin to the Gio/Altidore/Bradley triumvirate’s yang.

So is this the new-look, defensive-minded Toronto Vanney had in mind? Not really. Toronto’s backline made Montreal’s attack look competent. TFC hemorrhaged 5 goals to the Impact in that series. Montreal, by no stretch of the imagination a potent attacking team (they scored 49, conceded 53), lit Toronto up! Part of that 7-5 score line can be chalked up to context: the Eastern Conference just plays fastbreak soccer. The East teams all score and ship goals with equal aplomb and the best matches feature arcade-like scores, just like the Toronto-Montreal treat. But yeah, Toronto ships goals.

Vanney knows his 3-5-2 alignment employs a very porous 3-man backline. Eriq Zavaleta is Toronto’s starting right back. One more time: Eriq Zavaleta is Toronto’s starting left back. A former forward who couldn’t get minutes for a CB-hungry team in Seattle (remember when we were trotting out Ianni and Hurtado and a defunct Djimi) is starting on the backline of the Eastern Conference champs. Vanney’s alignment lives and dies with the whole “the best defense is a good offense” cliché. If Seattle can pressure the fullbacks to retreat and make Toronto play a 5-3-2, it’s gonna be another long Toronto offseason hunting for defenders and excuses.

 

Seattle Sounders Should Host MLS Cup

The Seattle Sounders travel to BMO field in Toronto for Saturday’s MLS Cup. Unfortunately for us, MLS is a home team league. MLS Cup has been contested on one of the participant’s home fields 7 times, and only twice has the away team won. Last year’s Portland side and the 2002 Galaxy are the only two teams to win away (curious that both are Western Conference teams…).

I had the following exchange with a devoted fan on Twitter yesterday:

MLS uses points from an unbalanced schedule to determine home field advantage for the championship. That policy, though league standard since 2011, should change. A quick MLS primer: each team plays 24 intraconference and 10 interconference games. Sure, every team in the league plays each other once, but over two-thirds of a team’s schedule is comprised of their conference foes. If the two conferences were of similar quality, the current policy would be fine. Since the leagues aren’t equal, and home field advantage is real, this policy plain stinks.

As a West Coast chauvinist, I innately know the Western Conference is better, but I also have numbers to back that up (h/t to Golfnut). Consider:

Sounders – 14-14-6 – 48 points

  • vs West – 8-11-5 – 29 points – 1.21 points per game

  • vs East – 6-3-1 – 19 points – 1.90 points per game

Toronto – 14-9-11 – 53 points

  • vs East – 11-4-9 – 42 points – 1.75 points per game

  • vs West – 3-5-2 – 11 points – 1.10 points per game

If the teams were to flip conferences:

  • Sounders earn 58 points playing 24 games vs the East and 10 games vs the West

  • Toronto earns 44 points playing 24 games vs the West and 10 games vs the East

Lastly, the Sounders infamously earned just 20 points from their first 20 games. 13 of those points were against Eastern conference teams (including one at BMO Field). Seattle, despite having to travel, should still win the championship.

West is Best: The Seattle Sounders and the Major League of MLS

The Seattle Sounders will face Toronto FC in their first crack at MLS Cup (granted, every season since their ascendance to the top flight has, arguably, been a crack at the Cup, but you can dig it).

If you’ve watched the Eastern Conference at all (and god knows why you’d waste your time with that brand of soccer) you *could* come away impressed by Toronto. Reviewing the regular season table reveals that the Reds posted an impressive 51 goals for and only 39 against. That +12 GD was good for the 3rd best in the league behind only NYRB and L.A. Galaxy.

Sure, the only two teams finishing with a better GD flamed out in the playoffs (because if there’s any consistency to MLS, it’s that the regular season means squat to the Cup), but Toronto stayed on a tear in the second season. They’ve scored 17 goal and only allowed 7, for a +11 GD in just 5 games. For a quick comparison, the Sounders are only 8-3 (GF/GA) in the postseason. Toronto is that team that seems to buzzsaw through everyone.

Just like New England in 2014. Remember that team? Jermaine Jones signed after the World Cup and had the Revs roaring. They whipped through the second half of the season, finishing second in their conference, before destroying the Eastern field while scoring 11 goals in 4 matches. These juggernaut Revs were then shut down in MLS Cup, losing 2-1 to the Galaxy.

You can contextualize and analyze this in many ways, but the long story short is: The Eastern Conference stinks. Or, if you want nuance, the East is worse than the West.

The last team from the East in win MLS Cup was SKC in 2013, and they were a once-and-future Western Conference team. Other than that asterisk, you have to go back to the Sigi-led Columbus Crew of 2008 and the 2004 DC United side for the previous Eastern reps to win the Cup. In fact, starting from 2000, the ‘08 Crew, and ‘04 United teams are the only purely Eastern sides to win the Cup in the last 18 years. Only 2 in the last 18 years!*

The true major league of North American soccer plays West of the Mississippi. The Sounders lack the gaudy stats and will be the visiting team in MLS Cup. But they’ve been through the Western Conference crucible, just like 16 of the past MLS Cup Champs.

*in 2000 the KC Wizards, representing the Western Conference, won the Cup. In ‘06 and ‘07, the Dynamo (then representing the West, though they went to the East before returning West) won the Cup. And again, yes the Sporks were in the East when they won in 2013… but they were a once and future Western team. So I am sticking to the 2 teams in 18 years stat.

SEATTLE SOUNDERS: MLS WESTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPS!

Your Seattle Sounders are Champions of the MLS Western Conference!

Last Sunday we beat Colorado 1-nil away, with a gutsy performance by Jordan Morris and the whole Sounders squad, to clinch the team’s first berth in the MLS Cup Final*.

You can heap much laud at the feet of Brian Schmetzer, but a key underrated achievement of his is his steady hand. Schmeltzer’s hiring initially brought stability to a club in flux. Sigi, facing the unexpected departure of Oba, and other roster complications, was forced to tinker with formations and lineups through much of his 20-game tenure in 2016. Schmetzer, aided by the additions of Lodeiro and Torres, had a deeper team to work with, and, once he found his preferred 4-2-3-1, stuck to it. Until, that is, he couldn’t.

Dempsey’s condition, plus the poor health of Evans, Ivanschitz and Friberg (and at times Flacco), have rocked the boat. Schmetzer is a dependable mariner as he’s always fielded the best 11 despite a limited selection. Last Sunday was no different. I’m loathe to h/t to the odious San Jose Ultras, but Goonies do indeed never say die. Right before kickoff we learned that Evans and Friberg were late scratches, and that J-Mo Smooth had been vomiting for 48 hours. Once again, Schmetzer was forced to roll the dice with his selection.

Getting J-Mo to play through his illness was a tough ask. Not ‘cause the hometown hero doesn’t want to rep his city, but because he looked greener than his kit in Colorado. You could see the man heaving and sweating it out. But his perseverance epitomized an axiom of the 2016 Sounders: play hurt. This squad has been hurt by major departures from Oba, Sigi, and Clint and minor aches and knocks by almost the entire roster. This team has been at less than its best all year, and they continue to play, continue to win.

The 11 that took the field Sunday was probably the weakest, in terms of pure talent, than any other that Seattle has rolled out in a Western Conference Final (even in the 2012 we had Fredy, Eddie, Mauro and Zakuani). But they are, arguably, the best team Seattle’s ever had (sorry 2014), and we, largely, have Schmetzer to thank for that. Banged up, bruised and heaving, this is the squad that has a chance to deliver what the Emerald City has always wanted: MLS Cup.

*I totally watched and had my mind blown by the Toronto-Montreal game last night, and am eagerly working on my MLS Cup Preview now. But I had started this post and was interrupted by… well, life. Sometimes, as Johnny Rzeznik of the incomparable Goo Goo dolls sings, …the world gets in your way. Hence the lack of currency with this post, as, before diving into the Cup preview, I wanted to smooth out and post this bad boy.

Leg 2: Seattle Sounders at Colorado Rapids

The Seattle Sounders lead going into the second leg of the MLS Western Conference Finals against the Colorado Rapids.

Though we have the lead, last Sunday was a little bit of a let down for the Sounders. I certainly didn’t predict that we’d allow a road goal to an impotent attacking team:

Now the boys in Rave Green have to score on the road against the kings of the 1-nil result. BOLD PREDICTION: I’ll admit, I’m nervous. A road goal has made a difference in every Sounders playoff series the last 3 years, and now Colorado has that edge. Plus we’re at altitude and B-Rad and Friberg are late scratches, so.. yeah. Out depth is paper thin, with only Flacco capable of making a difference off the bench against a Rapids 18 with Pappa, Hairston and Badji. That said, the Sounders are nothing if not resilient. Forgot Zlatan, it is Nico Lodeiro who has conquered America. The Sounders have been exceeding expectations for months now, and they won’t stop now.

Seattle Sounders Looking To Make History

The Seattle Sounders are in the Western Conference Finals for the 3rd time in 5 years. We seem to enjoy some Rave Green magic in the even years, as 2012 and 2014 join 2016. Even 2010 saw some hoodoo as we fought back from an atrocious start (4-8-3, 15 pts in 15 games) to make the playoffs. If the Sounders are plotted on an upward curve, this is the year we make MLS Cup.

Honestly? First I was just stoked we made the playoffs. With 8th straight playoff appearances, the Sounders are something special. In North American professional sports, where parity always wins, establishing a streak like the Sounders have is terribly, terribly difficult.

The longest active playoffs streak in professional sports is held by the Detroit Red Wings at an insane 25 seasons. Insane. Next is the San Antonito Spurs at 19, the Pittsburgh Penguins at 10, the Atlanta Hawks at 9 (really?!), and the Chicago Blackhawks, L.A. Galaxy and Seattle Sounders at 8. Those 7 teams have 17 championships, combined, during these streaks.

The major takeaways from that list are A) the NHL seems to be less competitive than the other major leagues, B) the Spurs are incredible, C) MLB and the NFL are really parity riddled (the New England Patriots seem to be the most dominant franchise in all of sports, but their current streak is only at 7 years) and D) streaks don’t mean squat if you don’t win. Who would’ve ever guessed the Atlanta Hawks were on that list? Just showing up to the dance doesn’t carve your name in history. You gotta win.

So we’re #hellagreedy. I thought I’d be happy with an early exit as long as we kept our streak going. But then we clinch (on the last day of the season), and I think, “we’ve never not played in the semis, so we’d best beat SKC (thank you Nelson Valdez and the lazy flag of the AR).” Then you want revenge on a vulnerable FC Dallas side that sent us packing last season.

And now, this. We’re playing an underwhelming Colorado side and we are THISCLOSE to our first MLS Cup. Now here’s where the #hellagreedy becomes #hellagrateful. I would be stoked with a mere MLS Cup appearance.

2016 has been a wild and wacky season with another magical turnaround and the unprecedented firing of Sigi. But the postseason has, so far, been pretty par. Everything we’ve done in the playoffs, we’ve done before. Making the Western Conference Finals isn’t new to this club, though facing a team that isn’t the Gals is.

Up until now, 2014 was the best Sounders season ever. We won an Open Cup-Supporters’ Shield Double and still only got as far as we are right now. In fact, the acme of that year was the 32nd to 53rd minute of the second leg of the Conference Finals. With goals by Brad Evans and Dempsey, we’d taken the aggregate lead on the Galaxy 2-1, and we’re less than 40 minutes from MLS Cup. Of course Juninho scores the away goal and we floundered in the twilight of the match.

Now a new hope has been ignited. We are 180 minutes away from making this year the best Sounders year ever. All we have to do is keep playing the brand of soccer coach Schmetzer has established: possess and attack. We do that, we make history.

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