Five key moments that led the Sounders to the MLS Cup final

Dec 7, 2016, 10:44 AM
Nelson Valdez became an unlikely hero when he scored the lone goal in Seattle's playoff win over KC...
Nelson Valdez became an unlikely hero when he scored the lone goal in Seattle's playoff win over KC. (AP)

With less than week to go before the Sounders face off against Toronto FC in their first ever MLS Cup final, it’s worth reflecting on the extraordinary season that led them here. For Seattle, 2016 didn’t always feel like the fairytale it is now. For more than half of the season, it felt a bit more like a nightmare. The Sounders floundered around near the bottom of the Western Conference for months, and many (including yours truly) wrote them off completely. But here they stand, on the precipice of history.

How did they get here? You could probably point to many individual events over the course of the season that led the Sounders to the final, but I’ve narrowed it down to five key moments.

The signing of Jordan Morris. While it wasn’t the perfect season for the Mercer Island native, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t absolutely crucial for the Sounders, despite this only being his first season as a professional. The organization had been practically begging Morris to sign for a couple years, and his stellar rookie year showed why. Morris was the Sounders’ leading scorer in 2016 with 12 goals in the regular season, half of which were game winners. After Obafemi Martins left, there was plenty of speculation about where the Sounders’ goals would come from. Even though it took a little while for Morris to get going, he exceeded expectations. The arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro saw Morris improve further, and his late-season form helped him earn MLS Rookie of the Year honors.

The 3-0 loss to KC in July. While it might sound weird to note a disastrous loss as key to a successful season, stick with me. I promise it will make sense. Going into this match, the Sounders had been in pretty terrible form. Aside from their fluky 5-0 win over FC Dallas, the Sounders had dropped points from eight of their previous 10 matches. As this match was a little over halfway through the season, a win over Sporting Kansas City could have allowed coach Sigi Schmid to keep his job. But the Sounders were utterly embarrassed in the Kansas City heat, losing 3-0 and not registering a single shot until the 88th minute. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Schmid, and his departure from the club led to Brian Schmetzer’s promotion. That played a very key role in getting the Sounders out of the mire and into the final.

The 3-1 win in Orlando in August. Rather than point to just the signing of Lodeiro, I think the moment where the Sounders’ style truly shifted (thanks to his influence) was their big win in Orlando. Ironically, Lodeiro doesn’t even show up on the scoring sheet, as he didn’t score or have a direct assist on any of Clint Dempsey’s three goals. But his creative influence was on full display, showing off a new style of Sounders soccer that hadn’t been there all season. The trifecta of Morris, Lodeiro and Dempsey was simply awe-inspiring and a harbinger of what was to come for the team. No longer were they punting the ball forward and hoping it bounces favorably. No longer were they pumping inaccurate crosses in the box with wayward abandon. They had a long journey back into playoff contention after that, but this was the first time that a glimmer of hope could be seen in how the Sounders looked on the pitch.

Nelson Valdez’s late goal in the first playoff round. For a player who has received criticism since the moment he arrived in the Emerald City, Valdez became Seattle’s unlikely hero in a game that almost ruined the team’s fairytale run. Despite the Sounders’ epic comeback in the regular season, the one-legged first-round match against Sporting KC looked like it was going to end like most of the Sounders’ previous playoff runs. As the Sounders tried and failed for nearly 90 minutes to break down KC’s chippy, total-defense game plan, Valdez stepped forward out of practically nowhere. Having not scored an MLS goal since the previous season’s playoffs, Valdez scored just before the end of regulation. No heartbreak in extra time or in a penalty shootout, just a last-second moment of brilliance from a guy that had become a punchline in 2016. Without that goal, the Sounders’ season might have ended in late October.

The 3-0 win over Dallas in the conference semifinals. Just like they had done for months, the Sounders went into this match as underdogs. Sure, it was at home and FC Dallas had lost its best player before the end of the regular season, but the away team was still the Supporters’ Shield and Open Cup winners. Dallas coach Oscar Pareja, for all his brilliance, vastly misjudged his tactics going into this one. He played extremely defensively, with a tactical approach that he hadn’t really used all season, and the Sounders made him pay. Their eight-minute, three-goal flurry changed that game and gave Seattle a huge cushion going into the second leg the following week. And even though Colorado also proved to be a tough test for the Sounders, their dominating win over Dallas signaled their championship intentions more than any other playoff match.

Spenser Davis also covers the Sounders for Sounder at Heart.

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