TORONTO — In the very same locker room where last year the Sounders sang, danced and poured champagne, the players sat gloomily and tried to explain what had gone so very wrong.
The faces were grim, the voices quiet. To the Sounders, the disappointment wasn’t just the fact they had failed to defend the MLS Cup in a 2-0 loss to Toronto FC at BMO Field. It was that they played so poorly and were so thoroughly dominated by the same team they squeaked past on penalty kicks a year ago.
“That was not one of our stellar performances,” coach Brian Schmetzer said.
That’s an understatement. The Sounders were under siege all game. Another heroic performance by goalkeeper Stefan Frei – “you feel like he’s bigger than the goal,” Cristian Roldan said admiringly – couldn’t stave off the inevitable. Seattle never mounted an attack and failed to stop Toronto from a flurry of shots, with Jozy Altidore finally getting one past Frei in the 67th minute. The Reds got a bonus goal in the 94th minute, and then partied on the same field where Seattle had first hoisted the Cup.
A year ago, the Sounders knew deep down that the better team had lost. General manager Garth Lagerwey conceded as much on Friday, and said his offseason goal had been to bridge the gap. This time, there was absolutely no doubt that the better team won, and now once again the Sounders will try to address that reality.
For starters, they will try to avoid the kind of slow starts to the season that kept them from winning home-field advantage for the MLS Cup two years in a row. They somehow survived that hardship a year ago, but not twice against a Toronto team that was clearly hungry for revenge from the first moments of the game.
“If you look at Toronto’s year, the start of the year was the loss in the 2016 MLS Cup,” Schmetzer said. “You could tell that was a motivated franchise, a motivated coach, a motivated team. Their success throughout the year, I believe, was fueled by the loss last year.
“I told my group, ‘Look, we can use this the same way, because we’re still a good team, and we can go out and compile a few more wins and maybe host an MLS final in front of our Seattle fans.’”
The Sounders and Reds defied odds merely by making it back to the Cup. Just ask Portland and Columbus, the 2015 finalists, both of which failed to even make the playoffs in 2016. But the Sounders were left to grapple with the reality that once they got to the big game, they were missing in action.
They lost an alarming number of the duels. Their halftime adjustments fizzled. While the Sounders’ effort never waned, they were unable to solve Toronto’s stifling pressure, led by midfielder Michael Bradley, who was every bit as valuable as Altidore, the official Most Valuable Player of the game.
“As soon as they lost the ball, Michael Bradley was on top of everybody,” Roldan said. “That’s what it seemed like. He was all over the field. He makes Toronto very successful when he plays that way.”
Roldan could remember just one other game – a 3-0 loss to Columbus in May – in which he felt like the Sounders were out-passed and out-dueled so decisively.
“It was an extremely unusual game by our standards,” Roldan said. “Those were probably the first two games we got outfought in every category.”
The Sounders had plenty of time to recover from the Columbus showing, and indeed came back to rattle off the longest unbeaten streak in club history. They entered the MLS Cup with a streak of six straight shutouts and seemed looser than Toronto all week. But there was no recovering against the team that had the best record in MLS history with 20 wins, five losses and nine draws – not two years in a row, anyway.
“Today we had too many balls given away, too many easy balls given away, too many easy passes given away,” Schmetzer said. “When you don’t have any rhythm to your game, you don’t create a ton of chances.”
What they had was Frei diving, leaping and twisting to make save after superhuman save, awakening hope that perhaps they could sneak through the game in similar fashion to last year. But as Jordan Morris said, “They came at us. You could tell they really, really wanted it, and eventually that dam is going to break and they’re going to score if things keep going like that.”
Perhaps no Sounder was as blunt after the game as Frei, who said, “We never found a way into the game. We survived the first half, which is OK, whatever. I think we have to push the reboot button at half to ensure the second half is different. Especially with the quality we have in this locker room and the way we play when we’re good was nowhere displayed in the first half.”
But the second half was more of the same, with the added gloom of the two goals by Toronto juxtaposed against any semblance of a legitimate scoring opportunity from Seattle. This game, at least, the Sounders had two shots on goal, but neither was emphatic.
“It was very disappointing to more or less accept the pace of the game and the development of the game when we all knew we had so much more to show,” Frei said.
Frei noted that the Sounders never could figure out a way to take control of the game.
“We were not able to find our way into the game as individuals, and therefore as a collective unit we weren’t able to find our way into the game,” he said. “We’re a possession-based team that likes to have the opponent chase us and get tired, and then start mounting a little bit of pressure.
“Well, if our first touches are garbage, and our passes are astray, you’re never going to be able to achieve that. We kept trying to find a way into the game for players, and the team as a collective, but weren’t able to do that.”
Schmetzer pointed, and rightly so, to many of the Sounders’ achievements this season. Certainly, putting themselves in position to play for a second straight title is to be lauded. Yet they will leave Toronto with the dull ache of one night’s underachievement.
“It’s unfortunate we picked the wrong time to have a game that was below our standards,” Schmetzer said.