Seattle Sounders FC celebrate its MLS Cup triumph. (Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
SEATTLE — Sometimes championship games can produce the most unlikely of heroes.
Take, for instance Seattle Sounders FC, which secured its second MLS Cup trophy in four seasons Thanks to a pair of players who scored seven times during the regular season.
Right back Kelvin Leerdam (five goals) and Victor Rodriguez (two goals) produced the second-half scoring heroics to boost Seattle to a 3-1 triumph over Toronto FC in the third title confrontation between the foes since 2016. Rodriguez, who played about a half hour, was named the game’s MVP.
Striker Raul Ruidiaz, who connected for 11 goals, added an insurance tally in the 90th minute to give the capacity crowd something more to cheer about.
A CenturyLink Field crowd of 69,274, which set records for the largest attendances in a sporting event, non-concert event and for Washington state, watched Seattle win its first MLS Cup at home.
Moreover, the fans were loud and enthusiastic. When Rodriguez scored his goal, reporters could feel the press box shake.
“It feels amazing,” forward Jordan Morris said. “The fans deserve it, we’re really happy. It was a pretty special atmosphere today. I said it before the game, whoever scored the first goal was going to be a game changer. When Kelvin scored a great goal, it definitely changed the game. It gave us confidence and the fans got in the game.”
Sounders FC had beaten Toronto FC for its only other league championship in 2016.
“It was amazing,” Rodriguez said. “I think the first half was hard for us because Toronto played very well. I think in the second half, we tried a little more of our soccer, our football. We kept a little more of the possession. This was, for me, key for the game. I am proud of my teammates. I think we deserve that. I’m very happy.”
Toronto controlled the pace of the game, particularly in possession in the first half. But somehow Sounders FC managed to pull through again, overcoming a problem the team had encountered during the postseason.
“It wasn’t our plan,” midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “The whole playoffs I feel like we were down possession, and we played three games at home. That’s unlike Seattle, right? The fact of the matter is we won those games. We found ways to win and I think that’s what makes this team so special. We played in many different ways throughout the year and in the postseason. That’s an example of why this team is so special.”
Ruidiaz, more known for his scoring prowess than playmaking, set up the first goal with a simple pass to Leerdam on the right side of the penalty area. Leerdam appeared to take a shot that toward the far post. The trajectory of the ball, however, changed when it deflected off a Toronto defender Justin Morrow and past goalkeeper Quentin Westberg into the back of the net.
“When we scored the goal, it’s raw, pure emotion of celebrating what just happened and it makes you think you’re that much closer to what you want to do,” Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “When you get to do that three times, to celebrate, it was tremendous.”
Many soccer observers in the press box felt it should have been called an own goal, but it counted just the same, a goal for the host side.
Rodriguez, who replaced Brad Smith in the 61st minute, gave the hosts some breathing room in the 76th minute on a much more conventional goal. Nicolas Lodeiro set up Rodriguez, who drilled a shot through two defenders and into the lower right corner for a two-goal advantage. Rodriguez tallied only twice during the regular season.
Rodriguez was a bench player for most of the season, but he understood the situation.
“The coach has to make decisions,” he said. “With my injuries in the season, maybe he doesn’t think I am ready for 90 minutes. If the team is winning, it’s normal. He has to keep this. I think I did well when I come on to the field. I’m always a player that wants to play all the minutes possible. For my situation, for my family, it was a little bit hard, but I am so happy for today.”
Ruidiaz latched onto a long ball by Gustav Svensson. He beat a Toronto defender and nestled the ball into the back of the net. Ruidiaz was so hyped by the goal that he ripped off his shirt in celebration. He received a yellow card for that infraction in stoppage time.
Toronto FC pulled one back in the 93rd minute as the visitors got on the scoreboard via a goal by second-half substitute Jozy Altidore off an Alejandro Pozuelo three minutes into stoppage time.
In a marked contrast, the opening half wasn’t much to write home about.
Yes, both sides tried to play soccer, but were unable to solve the opposing defense.
Premium scoring chances were few and far between as Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei made the play of the half in the 36th minute, when he dived to his left to parry away Nicolas Benezet’s attempt.
On the other end of the pitch, Westberg produced a kick save and a beauty to deny Ruidiaz from point-blank range in the 45th minute.
Sounders FC attempted eight corner kicks in the opening 45 minutes but was unable to get of them close to being a dangerous shot, or any shot for that matter.