Return to MLS Cup legitimizes Seattle's 2016 title and historic legacy
The flight back from Seattle's MLS Cup win last December in Toronto was less celebratory than you might imagine.
Major League Soccer's roster compliance rules require that contract decisions for the following season are due the morning after the title game. That meant that mere hours after the happy Sounders arrived back to a hero's greeting at the team hotel, exit interviews took place in that same lobby.
So while some still carried the glow of their victory on penalty kicks, that joy was cut by the realization that others on the plane had just found out they were out of a job.
Few would have dared imagine they'd be making a return journey to that exact same destination a year later to build on the accomplishments of that original group, with another championship trophy and legacies on the line. The trip from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Pearson International ought to be more single-minded, if nothing else.
The Sounders and Toronto FC will again battle for MLS Cup a week from Saturday at Toronto's BMO Field (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN). Rarely, if ever, in the modern era of the league has so much been at stake.
For TFC, victory would complete a strong claim for the greatest single season in MLS history. Toronto set the record for most regular-season points, finished tied for most wins and tied for second for most goals. It has already lifted the Canadian Championship and the Supporters' Shield and is one win away from becoming the first team ever to hoist three major trophies in the same calendar year.
The situation isn't quite boom-or-bust for the Reds -- history will likely be kind to their exploits this season even if they fall in the final -- but it's close. If they fail to finally get over the hump and win the club's first MLS Cup, that letdown will tack an asterisk onto everything else they've accomplished.
For Seattle, the stakes are a bit more nuanced.
In making it this far, the Sounders have already legitimized last season's dramatic title run, dismissing any notion that it was a flash in the pan. Red-hot playoff form aside, by playing on the road against a historically dominant opponent, they enter the showdown as slight underdogs. If there was a danger for complacency and entitlement ahead of the conference final versus Houston on Thursday night, the situation has flipped ahead of the MLS Cup.
Seattle can, however, join a very short and elite list with another triumph on enemy soil. Just three squads have ever gone back-to-back: D.C. United in 1996-97, the Houston Dynamo in 2006-07 and the LA Galaxy in 2011-12, and those groups are rightly regarded as three of the best in MLS history.
These Sounders might not be quite on that level -- an argument could be made that they aren't even the best team in recent Seattle history, behind the 2014 squad that nearly pulled off the groundbreaking treble TFC is now taking aim at. But championships are championships. Veteran center-back Chad Marshall said on Thursday night that this group is even better than the crew that won it all last year, and based on the 5-0 aggregate whooping it just put on the Dynamo, who's to say otherwise?
Marshall otherwise shrugged off legacy talk -- "You know me ... I'll leave that for you guys," he said -- but this coming week, it's going to be inescapable. And all of that is before we even get into what the game might mean for longtime U.S. internationals such as Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.
In the aftermath of last year's championship game, Seattle owner Adrian Hanauer offered to jet his players anywhere they wanted to commemorate the franchise's first title. Recent NBA champs Golden State and Cleveland had taken to flying straight to Las Vegas to celebrate. Hanauer pitched his team on doing something similar, flying back to Seattle for the parade and then back out to a destination of their choosing, but found few takers.
"We had people from all over the world," goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. "I wanted to get the hell out of here. I wanted to go home. It had been an 11-month season. I was done."
When he looks back on it, the 2016 MLS Cup MVP wishes he would have done more to bask in the moment.
"In retrospect, instead of going from Toronto to Seattle, we should have gone Toronto, Vegas for 24 hours -- chilled at every dance club we can find with the shirt on our backs and nothing else -- and then came back to Seattle," Frei said. "I guess we'll just have to win another one."
Next Saturday evening, they might get that chance -- for Vegas and for so much more.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.