MLS Cup Playoffs

MLS CUP 2017: Seattle Sounders Apotheosis as a SuperClub

Happy MLS Cup Day Seattle Sounders fans!!

Your humble Seattle Sounders play world-beating Toronto FC today for MLS Cup. No big deal. I still can’t believe the Sounders are looking at a potential repeat. I repeat, your Seattle Sounders are on the precipice of becoming only the fourth team in MLS history to repeat as MLS Cup champions.

With only nine years in the league, consistent playoff wins, 4 US Open Cups, 1 Supporter Shield, and 1 MLS Cup, this simple appearance cements Seattle as an Alexi Lalas-approved SuperClub™.

However. How often do we discuss the 21st Century dominance of the Houston Dynamo? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Houston began play in 2006, converted from a failing San Jose franchise, and immediately won MLS Cup. Then they repeated. Then they made it to two more back-to-back MLS Cups and two more Western Conference Finals. From 2006 to 2013, 8 years, Houston had 4 MLS Cup appearances, 2 wins, and 2 more Western Conference Final appearances. That is, frankly, dominance. And yet… when the Dynamo reclaimed their perch and advanced to the Conference Finals, no one was scared or whispering about the rebirth of a bully. Their record had fast faded.

Seattle does not want that. Seattle wants, has always wanted, will always want, to be THE gold-standard of American soccer. They took their first step last year and can make a mighty leap today. Seattle must beat Toronto.

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Sure, Toronto is off to a historically great season in 2017. Sure, Toronto was the last team to beat us at home. Sure, we didn’t muster a single shot on goal in last year’s final. And back in early May, in TFC’s 1-0 win in Sodo, the Reds won on an Altidore PK. Toronto was down some key players, specifically Giovinco, while we trotted out Schmetzer’s stolid 4-2-3-1, the same formation we’ll use today. We fielded many of the same players, Nico, Roldan, Deuce, Svensson, Bruin, Joevin, Roman, Frei, that we’ll trust our fortunes with today. So… wowzer, Seattle shouldn’t have even took the flight to Lake Ontario.

However. Kelvin Leerdam wasn’t wearing Green in May. He is the player who will turn the game in Seattle’s favor today. I ardently believe that fullbacks define modern soccer. Mears and Jones saw Seattle through last year, as will Leerdam and Jones/Nouhou today. Leerdam has pace, intellect, instinct and 1v1 chops. Last year, Toronto pinned our fullbacks back with their effective duo of Morrow and Beitashour, and that will simply not happen today because of Leerdam.

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Frankly I give a lot of credit to the president of soccer for this. Garth Lagerwey arrived in Seattle to much fanfare, his name was all over the place. Lagerwey took much praise, and blame, for the #Sigiout situation and some missed signings. We debated whether the Ivanschitz and Valdez signings had his fingerprints on them. Lately, Mr. President has done a solid job of staying out of the spotlight, save for the missed Derlis signing, while rebuilding this team for a championship repeat.

Replace Mears as RB? Check. Leerdam.

Replace Friberg and get some depth at DM? Check. Svensson.

Replace Valdez at #9? Check. Bruin.

Replace Flacco and augment the attack? Check. Rodriguez.

Sign a likable Muppet-man to the team for quality depth? Check. Shipp.

Some of the best decisions are the ones you don’t make. Lagerwey kept his cool about Deuce’s career-threatening injury, and didn’t overpay a mercenary to fill a potentially non-existent hole. And even the hardline he took on the Derlis signing, not being cowed by Dynamo Kiev, was a huge signal to world football clubs that Seattle, over in little old MLS, will not be bullied.

But what I love best from Lagerwey is how Seattle has collected a slew of modern fullbacks in Leerdam, Jones and Nouhou. Sure Joevin is pulling a poor-man’s Yedlin and jumping across the pond, but that’s the cost of developing international-quality players at the modern game’s key position.

Lagerwey is the catalyst for Seattle pivoting from perennial playoff contender to once and future champions.

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BOLD PREDICTION: Mrs. Raving Green is stressing this game, but I am oddly confident.

Maybe not so oddly. Toronto is in a funk and had to battle through the East’s 6 and 5-seed to make the Final. Seattle is feeling it right now. Seattle is on a tear and destroyed the West’s 3 and 4-seed.

Last year I wrote, The Seattle Sounders have the sparkle of fortune about them as they prepare to square off against Toronto FC in Saturday’s MLS Cup. 2017, however, TFC has been destiny’s darling, and that simply isn’t enough. All the pressure is on the Reds. Seattle is in better form. Seattle 2-1 in extra time. Deuce equalizes to send the game past 90, and favorite son, J-Mo ices the game. SOUNDERS! ‘Tis the Season of joy!

The 2017 Seattle Sounders Quiet Excellence

The Seattle Sounders host the Houston Dynamo Thursday for a shot to #DefendOurCup at MLS Cup 2017. Frankly, it is more than a shot. The Sounders lead the series 2-nil, with two precious away goals. This is our series to win.

Thankfully the Sounders’ winning has been a lot more consistent than my blogging. Babies, yo. It baffles me that my last ten posts date all the way back to December 10th, 2016 and my Bold Prediction for the 2016 MLS Cup. In those ten posts in almost a year, only two were long-ish form. My commitment to excellence (blog-cellence?) has wavered, but the Sounders’ hasn’t.

The 2017 season, though somewhat underwhelming for the duration, can already be considered one of Seattle’s best seasons in MLS history.

In 2017, Seattle:

  • Earned 53 points, their fourth-highest total ever
  • Finished 2nd place in the West, their third-best conference finish
  • Clinched only their 4th berth in the Western Conference Championship
  • Nearly Booked (don’t jinx it!!) their second trip to MLS Cup

Last year: the drama surrounding the #Sigiout decision, the insane collapse mid-summer, the Nico signing, Clint’s health scare, the raucous and boisterous push to make the playoffs, then the Cup Final. 2016 was a wild, wild ride.

This year: the Sounders were tediously excellent. Sure, they earned all those points and results, but they never felt like a great team, a championship-caliber team. Seattle signed solid players (Svensson, Leerdam, Rodriguez) but whiffed on making a splash with Derlis Gonzalez. Much like their unheralded, lunchpail-type coach, Brian Schmetzer, Seattle just quietly plugged away at the yeoman’s work of being a winning soccer team.

2017 wasn’t precocious 2011, beautiful 2014, or gritty 2016; it was just winning soccer. In the 18 games since Jun 21st, the Sounders only dropped 18 points for a record of 9-2-7 and a whopping 1.88 points-per-game. The Sounders enjoyed four solid months of sustained excellence, but frankly, underwhelmed.

Buuuut these last two games… Vancouver leg 2 and Houston leg 1, saw the all-caps SOUNDERS back in action. Even with injuries and constant lineup shuffling, Schmetzer had the boys singing with 4 goals scored, 0 conceded, and a joyous, jogo-bonito flair.

I’m getting excited again. The boys are rounding into form, getting healthier right in time to knock on the doors of history. Seriously, even without J-Mo and Ozzie we can punch our ticket to Toronto MLS Cup, again, where we have a real chance at repeating. This has only happened four times in MLS history. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

There is still game to be won Thursday night, and Mrs. Raving Green and I will be singing and supporting in Sodo. We didn’t attend a single playoff game last year (see: baby, new), breaking our streak since 2010, and it suuucked. It was especially bittersweet because I had my heart broke in person in the rain in 2012 and 2014. Like Dempsey, I want to be a part of a championship. Good thing I can trust Schmetzer and these Sounders to show up and do the work. Make it so, boys.

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.

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.

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