Sounders FC

Sounders cap decade of dominance by topping Toronto in MLS Cup

Maybe it’s not quite time to label Seattle Sounders FC a dynasty, but after Sunday, the conversation should at least begin.

Playing in their third MLS Cup in four years, the Sounders boldly captured their second league championship, breaking through with three second-half goals against Toronto FC to ice a 3-1 win in front of a record-breaking crowd at CenturyLink Field.

For those tallying up the accolades this franchise has collected since it joined MLS as an expansion team in 2009, here’s a list: Two MLS Cup wins in three appearances, playoff appearances every year of its existence, a Supporters’ Shield win, and four U.S. Open Cup championships.

If the franchise isn’t considered a dynasty yet, it certainly seems on the horizon.

“The reality is, we’ve got to continue to do it,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “We’ve got to continue to get into these MLS Cup finals, to compete for Supporters’ Shield. We have the coaching staff, we have the fans, we have everything to set us up for success.”

That was clear Sunday afternoon, when 69,274 — the largest crowd for a sporting event ever recorded at the stadium the Sounders share with the city’s NFL franchise — packed into CenturyLink, thirsting for a victory Seattle’s professional soccer community has sought for decades.

Seattle had never scored a goal in the MLS Cup until this match. Three years ago in Toronto, they escaped with their first league championship in a penalty shootout few could have predicted. The following year, again in Toronto, the Sounders were overmatched, outplayed and shut out.

Perhaps such a significant strike was somehow saved for the city of Seattle to witness live, because in the 57th minute, the Sounders ended their 267 minutes of scoreless championship soccer.

Kelvin Leerdam, who had not yet scored a goal in the playoffs, dribbled around a Toronto defender, and sent the chance toward the goal. It ricocheted off Justin Morrow’s knee and past goalkeeper Quentin Westerberg.

That first goal was enough to send the crowd into a frenzy. The second, a strike from Victor Rodriguez — who subbed on minutes earlier and was named the game’s MVP — in the 75th, shook the stadium. By the time Raul Ruidiaz added a third in the 90th minute, beating a defender to a free ball and blasting it into the back of the net, the celebration was spilling into the aisles.

Ruidiaz removed his shirt and twirled it through the air as he circled through the stadium.

When it was over, the Sounders gathered on the stage set up at midfield, a giant silver star situated behind them, and hoisted the MLS Cup trophy for the second time in four seasons.

Confetti flew. Fireworks blasted in the background. It was the perfect end to a trilogy of playing a solid Toronto team three times at this stage in the past four years and cemented a decade of dominance for Seattle.

Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey won’t use the term dynasty yet — you need three MLS Cup wins to earn that moniker, he says — but says the club did well to prove its winning ways are much more than a stroke of good fortune.

“What I think is, we’re not a footnote now,” Lagerwey said. “We didn’t fluke our way to one title with no shots on goal in Toronto. We took them back here at home in the trilogy, and we beat them. Our good players were better than their good players and they won us the game.

“It’s a credit to our team and the talent and the character of the guys. It’s been a lot of fun, I’ll tell you that.”

Seattle is one of only four franchises to advance to three championship games in four seasons, joining D.C. United, which appeared in the first four from 1996-99, the L.A. Galaxy, which accomplished the feat twice between 1999-2002 and 2009-12, and, of course, this Toronto squad.

The Sounders became the sixth franchise in MLS history to claim two titles with Sunday’s win, joining Houston, San Jose and Sporting Kansas City. They now only trail L.A. (five titles) and D.C. United (four).

While other clubs like Atlanta and LAFC have nabbed headlines recently as up-and-coming franchises, this Sounders run should send a message in sustainability.

“We’re up here in the northwest doing our thing, and we want to be consistent,” majority owner Adrian Hanauer said. “We want to have the chance to challenge for championships every year. We want to deliver a great, entertaining product to our fans. We want to impact our community. Our vision here is to create moments and enrich lives and unify through soccer.

“I think today was quite an example of that. Not all that concerned with what other people are doing, just want to continue to plow ahead for Sounders FC.”

But, it’s surely agreed they’ve consistently raised the standard in this league during the past decade.

“I would say the Sounders in 2009, when they came into the league, really elevated this league,” goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “With (their) supporters and with the atmosphere, and with (their) ambitions, too.

“For us to be able to be consistently now gunning for trophies in the playoffs … I think we’ve done quite well.”

Others can decide if the Sounders should be considered a dynasty, Frei said, he was just proud to come away with another trophy.

“The big one,” he said. “The one that everybody else wants to win.”

They had to survive extensive pressure from Toronto in the first half and the early parts of the second to join such impressive company.

Toronto controlled possession for much of the contest, and Seattle was mostly reactive in the first half, holding on during several close calls, and possessing the ball only for fleeting moments.

Frei made a few needed saves to preserve the scoreless tie headed into halftime, but said after a promising Ruidiaz run near the end of the first half, he had plenty of confidence Seattle’s attack would ultimately pull through.

“Testy game, back and forth, obviously,” he said. “These are affairs where teams don’t want to make errors. But, honestly, I felt good. We had that sniffer there at the end of the first half. … I felt like Raul did his thing there. He looked sharp, he looked hungry.

“So I knew if we got a couple more looks in the second half, those guys up there … they’re just waiting. When you know the guys that are your difference-makers are switched on, you have a good chance of winning.”

The Sounders had a 3-0 lead before conceding their only goal in stoppage time when Jozy Altidore, playing for the first time in the playoffs, ended the shutout.

Few noticed. The celebration already had started around the stadium as the Sounders enjoyed what was the pinnacle of their first decade in MLS.

“It’s been a good run of form,” Sounders midfielder Jordan Morris said. “Of course this club is always a club that competes for championships. Obviously LA’s at five now, and in the future we want to get to that level and try to be one of the best teams in MLS history. But, to have two in the last four years is pretty special.”

The Sounders will celebrate Sunday night, then plan another championship parade, which is set for noon Tuesday at Westlake Park. After that?

“We go back to work and figure out how we’re going to do it all over again,” Hanauer said.

Lauren Smith covers the Seattle Mariners for The News Tribune. She previously covered high school sports at TNT and The Olympian, beginning in 2015. She is a graduate of the University of Washington and Emerald Ridge High School.