Legacies on the line as Seattle sets up MLS Cup rematch with Toronto
SEATTLE -- The Sounders completed a two-leg rout of Houston in the second leg of their MLS Western Conference final on Thursday at CenturyLink Field, winning 5-0 on aggregate and 3-0 on the night behind goals from Victor Rodriguez, Clint Dempsey and Will Bruin. Here are three thoughts from Seattle's win.
1. Seattle takes care of business
There was an expectant air about the green-clad fans who gathered in the Pioneer Square neighborhood next to CenturyLink Field on Thursday evening. With the Sounders carrying over a 2-0 lead from the first leg of the series and with a recent history of coming through in big games, it was as if the crowd expected to attend a coronation rather than a sporting event.
There's danger in such hubris, and had Houston managed to score an early away goal, a nervous hush might have settled over the stadium. Instead, it took just 22 minutes for Seattle to essentially put the series on ice. Rodriguez played a nifty one-two with former Dynamo forward Bruin, finished inside the far post and that was that.
Brian Schmetzer didn't get much love in the MLS Coach of the Year voting, and there are certainly sexier names around the league. Few are better, however, at keeping players from looking beyond any given opponent, keeping them focused on the task at hand. His meticulous, hands-on coaching style always meant that an epic collapse against a shorthanded opponent was extremely unlikely, and the Sounders looked locked in from the opening kick.
As a result, the Seattle native will coach in his second MLS Cup final in less than a year and half on the job.
2. Houston playing with house money
The Dynamo will have all offseason to wonder what might have been if Jalil Anibaba hadn't been red-carded for pulling down Joevin Jones 28 minutes into the first game at BBVA Compass Stadium. From that flashpoint forward, a team built for protecting a lead and playing on the counter never really threatened the defending champs.
Even so, Houston has plenty to be proud of what it accomplished this season -- and there is reason to believe that it will only build on it all from here. First-year head coach Wilmer Cabrera inherited a team that finished at the very bottom of the Western Conference last season and infused it with identity and purpose.
At its best, attackers flying forward in an orange blur, the Dynamo is a legitimate thrill to watch. Honduran wingers Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto -- whose absences from the starting XI in the second leg did not help Houston's chances -- are intriguing building blocks. Cabrera's crew is on an upward trajectory. Memories of the conference semifinal upset of Portland and less pleasant ones from Thursday will serve them well going forward.
3. The rematch is on
Not since Houston faced off with the LA Galaxy in 2011 and 2012 has the league championship game pitted the same two clubs against each other in consecutive seasons. Never in the modern era of the league have both participants had so much on the line.
Seattle is playing to etch its name into MLS lore as just the third repeat titlist, alongside 1996-97 D.C. United and the 2011-12 Galaxy, two of the very best squads in league history. These Sounders might not be quite on either of their level -- and might not even be the best team in recent Seattle history behind the 2014 crew that challenged for a groundbreaking treble -- but championships are championships. They're playing for legitimacy, in other words, to dispel any notion that last year's run was a fluke or that this surge is only because the rest of the West is so weak.
Toronto, meanwhile, is seeking to complete the greatest single season in MLS history -- and pull off the feat that so tantalizingly eluded the '14 Sounders. TFC has already won the Canadian Championship and Supporters' Shield and is one win away from becoming the first club ever to win three major trophies in a given year. The Reds have been dominant, setting the record for regular-season points, finishing tied (with the '14 Sounders) for most wins and tied for second for most goals. Yet without the ultimate cherry on top, each of those feats will be at least slightly delegitimized. That might be unfair, but that's sports.
The narratives for the final are plentiful: Dempsey playing for the crown a year after missing out with an irregular heartbeat, Toronto's Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore attempting to balm some of the sting of the United States' World Cup qualifying disaster. Legacies will be on the line when the 2017 MLS Cup final kicks off next Saturday at BMO Field.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.