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Opportunistic Sounders see off Toronto FC for second MLS Cup title in four years

Sometimes cup finals are settled with a moment of brilliance, a sprinkling of stardust that will never be forgotten. And sometimes, someone just sticks out a knee.

The Seattle Sounders are MLS Cup champions after a 3-1 win over a Toronto FC side who looked the better team for long periods of Sunday’s final until they were doomed by a deflection.

The turning point came in the second half when the hapless Justin Morrow sent the ball into his own net and gave the home side a lead they never looked like relinquishing in front of their raucous support.

“I’m going to get a little emotional because it’s really a good moment for the city of Seattle, the fans, the players who have overcome a lot of adversity this year,” Brian Schmetzer, the Seattle head coach, told ESPN.

It is a second title as head coach for Schmetzer, a figure as Seattle as caffeine, tech and rain, and a man with the calmly ruminative demeanor of an accountant who knows all the juiciest tax loopholes. This was not a victory that owed everything to his undoubted tactical acumen, but to a fluke that shifted the momentum of the tie and gave the Sounders a sorely-needed injection of confidence.

“The first goal kind of started us going,” Schmetzer said. “We were able to find our footing, and our team’s a dangerous team.”

The crowd of 69,274 at CenturyLink Field was another mighty attendance on the heels of the 73,019 who saw Atlanta United beat the Portland Timbers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2018. This was also a worthy occasion, as one of the league’s totemic clubs played at home in MLS Cup for the first time.

Despite a tepid first half, in terms of goals scored this was a final in keeping with the postseason matches that had preceded it: ahead of Sunday, this year’s MLS playoffs averaged four goals per game. The last time the MLS Cup final had produced four goals was the Los Angeles Galaxy’s 3-1 win over the Houston Dynamo in 2012.

MLS streamlined its playoff process this year, shifting to a single-game elimination format that invited upsets. Result? The third meeting of these clubs in the final in four years. Toronto won 2-0 in 2017, the year after Seattle took the title on penalties.

Familiar names, then. Still, both teams defied the odds to reach this showpiece. Toronto, who had finished fourth in the Eastern Conference, stunned the East winners, New York City FC, and Atlanta, both on the road.

Seattle were second in the West, a hefty 16 points adrift of Los Angeles FC, perhaps the best MLS team in history (when the ball is in the opposition half, anyway). Yet the Sounders knocked them out, 3-1, at Banc of California Stadium with the help of two goals from Raul Ruidiaz.

Each club’s presence on this stage, then, was arguably a triumph for adaptability, stubbornness and the timely seizing of major moments, rather than the kind of consistent excellence that is rewarded over the course of a season-long grind.

The latter quality has long been a hallmark of Michael Bradley’s play. He is an oddly polarixing figure in American soccer: his crime, being good not great for the national side in an era when most of his teammates barely rise above mediocre.

At 32, he can be hustled out of relevance, but in the first half here he was afforded a generous amount of room to float languid-looking diagonal balls, and pop up unmolested in promising spaces in the final third.

Bradley reportedly had an extra incentive to lift the trophy, with a Toronto win said to trigger an automatic $6.5m contract extension (matching his salary this year). His busy afternoon was a key reason why Toronto had more imagination and more possession in the first half, with Seattle struggling to find a route to goal that did not travel down the left wing.

Pre-game expectations were that the Sounders would be impelled by their massive, stadium-record home advantage to adopt a more adventurous style than usual, but for most of the first 45 minutes they appeared to be counter-attacking without the attacking, while their opponents camped out in the final third.

Yet Ruidiaz should have given Seattle the lead moments before the break, as he surged clean through past a dithering and wobbling Omar Gonzalez but saw his shot saved by goalkeeper Quentin Westberg.

Toronto’s best chance of the period fell to the Frenchman, Nicolas Benezet, whose low shot was saved at full stretch by Stefan Frei against his former club.

The second half started in much the same vein, yet Seattle grabbed the lead three minutes before the hour. Seattle right back Kelvin Leerdam pinged the ball across the box and Toronto defender Morrow stuck out a leg and deflected it into his own net.

Ten minutes later, Toronto coach Greg Vanney hit the emergency-break-glass box, summoning Jozy Altidore off the bench to replace Benezet. Stricken with a quad injury, the striker had not played since 6 October, the last day of the regular season.

He would indeed go on to score; it would not matter. With 15 minutes left, Victor Rodriguez capped an adroit move, feinting past Gonzalez on the edge of the area to create space for what proved to be a splendid shot into the corner.

It was three in stoppage time when Ruidiaz chased a long ball and steered his effort beyond Westberg. Remarkably, there was time for Altidore to steer a header past Frei for what could only be the smallest of consolations.

In the past month, Toronto had made the most of the capricious nature of playoff soccer, when an entire season’s destiny can spin in an instant thanks to a piece of luck, genius or idiocy; on Sunday, they were ill-fated when it mattered most.

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