Sounders win fourth USL-1 title
A drizzly night did not dampen the celebration for the host Seattle Sounders as they dominated in a 4-0 victory over the Atlanta Silverbacks in the USL First Division Championship with two goals from sub Greg Howes and several great saves from goalkeeper Chris Eylander. The Sounders now have the most titles in USL-1 history with four.
Seattle used two long-range tries, one directly off the kickoff and one that was put out by Atlanta goalkeeper Ryan McIntosh, to keep the Silverbacks honest early. But Atlanta rarely looked bothered.
In the 18th minute the Sounders' title hopes took a blow. Their midfield engine, Leighton O'Brian went down with an assumed groin injury and the former league MVP was subbed out in favor of veteran Greg Howes.
Following the injury Seattle took off. First a cross from Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar, placed just beyond the reach of a Silverback defender, found Josh Gardner with time at the back post. He had options and chose to play a driven ball across the area, leaving McIntosh helpless. But forward charging right back Kevin Sakuda could not control the cross and put the ball just wide.
Seconds later a Sounders corner found the gifted feet of USL First Division MVP Sebastien Le Toux. He was in heavy traffic but managed to poke a sharp grounder at McIntosh. Seeing the ball at the last second McIntosh excelled himself again, a reflex save to his left to keep the match scoreless.
McIntosh under siege, it was only a matter of when Seattle would find the back of the net. But just then Atlanta proved this championship match would not end as a one-sided affair. They turned the table on the Sounders when they found Warren Ukah, a tall target forward, in the area with his back to goal.
Ukah took a pass from Silverback captain Rodrigo Rios and flicked the ball high enough to get a bicycle-kick try on Chris Eylander's goal. The no-look shot had Eylander beat, but sprawling backward the keeper pushed the ball just over the crossbar. The save kept the match level through the 35th minute.
The bicycle attempt seemed to be the pinnacle of the Silverbacks attack and the tide shifted once again to the Sounders.
In the 45th minute the Sounders struck first, saving face after having eight first half shots on goal and coming away empty handed, their ninth found the back of the net.
Greg Howes, who came on earlier for an injured Leighton O'Brien in the 18th minute made the best of his time on the pitch when teammate Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar picked him out in a pack of Silverback defenders. Howes had the pack by a step and McIntosh knew it. Charging off his line immediately, McIntosh was in perfect position to take away a sure goal when Howes calmly nicked a ball to the back post just out of his reach. The match headed into halftime 1-0 Seattle.
As expected the Silverbacks came out in the second frame looking for an equalizer.
In barely the 46th minute Atlanta's Ukah was at it again. He touched a ball played into his feet around a defender and an on-charging Eylander. It looked on net but everyone in the crowd prayed it wide as the tickler inched past the far post.
Ten minutes later the Silverbacks were still after the equalizer. Atlanta earned three consecutive corners and their second try was the best. A ball driven over the six yard box found the head of Omar Jarun. His textbook header pounded the ground in front of Eylander before bouncing directly at the goalkeeper's head. He saved a goal and his face by pushing the ball over the crossbar.
Searching for an equalizer can often lead to a team over-extending themselves and that was just the case in the 61st minute. Playing defense for the first time in the second half the Silverbacks defense failed to corral Taylor Graham, who was moving forward from his left back position.
Graham continued to move uncontested up the left flank of the pitch before passing to a wide open Alcaraz-Cuellar, five yards outside of the box. Alcaraz-Cuellar, who is a perennial league leader in assists and had been sending in dangerous crosses all match, turned his aim on net, added roughly 30 mph and rocketed a shot past a sprawling McIntosh just inside the post for the 2-0 lead.
Atlanta refused to back off and pressured the Sounders, who by now were playing full-on team defense. They managed another high shot in the 67th at Eylander. He was again equal to it and pushed it over the bar, reminiscent of his first save of the night -- this would not be his last. Atlanta fought on, nipping the crossbar with the ensuing corner kick.
A series of subs slowed the pace a bit before Alcaraz-Cuellar nearly set up another goal nine minutes from time when he received a ball from Rookie of the Year finalist Kenji Treschuk and sent a cross in from the edge of the 18 to Le Toux. The Frenchman's header from the six nearly got past McIntosh, who knocked it wide.
McIntosh's save only delayed the inevitable, however, as Howes, who was on the wrong side of the championship last year as his Rochester Rhinos fell at home 3-0 to the Vancouver Whitecaps, blasted a 20 yard shot that deflected off defender Matt Bobo and left McIntosh going the wrong direction as it struck the back of the net. Howes would be honored as the Championship Game MVP.
Up 3-0 with eight minutes left, it looked good that the Sounders would claim sole possession of being the league's all-time best team with a fourth title, surpassing fellow three-time champion Rochester, who missed out on a fourth last year after Seattle had pulled level with their third in 2005.
Atlanta had a chance to spoil Eylander's shutout in the 87th when Angel Rivillo sped past the Sounders defense, but his shot from a tough angle toward the far post was knocked wide yet again by the outstanding goalkeeper.
A minute later Seattle put nine-year veteran Craig Tomlinson in the match for Le Toux and the striker just two days before his 35th birthday netted a stoppage time goal in what may be the last match of his career. A corner put on goal by Roger Levesque was stopped by McIntosh, but the rebound fell out to Tomlinson, who put it away from four yards out to cap the victory.