So in many ways, the rave-green celebration that erupted at CenturyLink Field on Sunday afternoon, then along the waterfront and into Pioneer Square and across Puget Sound, was a fitting moment for the club and the league as a whole.
The Sounders’ second MLS Cup title — and their first claimed at home — came in a 3-1 victory over Toronto FC at a sold-out madhouse of 69,274, the largest for a sporting event in the 17-year history of the venue. (Only U2 drew more.) The only MLS Cup to draw a larger crowd was 11 months ago in Atlanta (73,019).
Three second-half goals flipped a match that had been trending in favor of the organized and ambitious visitors for almost an hour.
Kelvin Leerdam was credited with the go-ahead goal in the 57th minute, though defender Justin Morrow’s deflection should have resulted in an own-goal ruling. A fine finish by substitute Víctor Rodríguez in the 76th minute all but shattered Toronto’s hopes. Raúl Ruidíaz added another goal in the 90th before Toronto’s Jozy Altidore scored in stoppage time, putting a very brief damper on Seattle’s second title in four seasons. The Sounders also have won the U.S. Open Cup four times and once claimed the Supporters’ Shield, awarded to the league’s regular season champion.
They won their first MLS Cup in 2016 in Toronto. A year later, they fell to the Canadian side at the same location.
This season, Seattle finished a distant second to Los Angeles FC in the Western Conference. But after losing to D.C. United at Audi Field on Sept. 22, the Sounders ran off five consecutive victories, culminating in Sunday’s festival.
Tickets for the final had been snatched up the same day they were available — not surprising given Seattle’s love for its soccer team. Every season between 2009 and 2016, the Sounders led MLS in attendance, with the average swelling to 44,247 one year. (Seattle’s baseball team has not averaged 30,000 since 2007.)
To create scarcity and enhance the atmosphere, much of the upper reaches of the stadium are usually closed for MLS matches. For big occasions, however, the team opens additional sections.
Although Seattle set the standard, Atlanta United (born in 2017) has shattered it, averaging more than 50,000 over the past two seasons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The throngs in Seattle on Sunday were clearly concerned for much of the match. Toronto — a No. 4 seed that needed extra time to beat D.C. United in the first round and then went on the road to upset first-place New York City FC and second-seeded Atlanta — set the terms with high pressure and a fluid attack.
Both goalkeepers made fine saves before halftime.
Toronto’s Alejandro Pozuelo, a Spaniard in his first MLS season, was a wizard with the ball. In one breathtaking sequence, he spun, fell, popped back up while retaining possession with his gifted feet and continued his run to beat four players and create danger at the edge of the penalty area.
The visitors were richly deserving of a goal. But in the 57th minute, against the run of play, Leerdam sidestepped Nicolas Benezet on the right side, and an instant before Chris Mavinga could intervene, he ripped a low shot that seemed to be heading wide of the far post. But in the blur of the moment, Morrow stuck out his left leg and inadvertently redirected the ball past goalkeeper Quentin Westberg.
Toronto reinforcements came in the form of Nick DeLeon, who scored a spectacular goal to eliminate Atlanta, and Altidore, the U.S. World Cup striker who had missed the previous three playoff games with a quadriceps injury.
Would the match have unfolded differently had Altidore been healthy and on the field for 90 minutes? Perhaps. Without him, though, Toronto had played some effective soccer through the postseason and should have gone ahead Sunday.
With the lead and the rocking crowd behind it, however, Seattle beamed with confidence. The second goal came after a cool layoff from Nicolás Lodeiro. Rodríguez, who had entered 15 minutes earlier, touched the ball to his right and unleashed an 18-yard strike that settled into the far corner. The Spaniard, who arrived in Seattle two years ago, was named the game’s MVP.
Later, Ruidíaz beat Mazinga to a long ball over the top of the defense and lifted a shot over the advancing Westberg. Altidore’s 12-yard header was small consolation for Toronto, which had its 13-game unbeaten streak since the first week of August snapped.
“It was really positive and awesome to do it away from home” in 2016, Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “But now to do it with 70,000 here is amazing. It’s a beautiful feeling.”