What. A. Turnaround.
In July, the Seattle Sounders found themselves at the bottom of the MLS standings and fired the only head coach the team had ever had. Since then? Magic. The squad replaced Sigi Schmid with coach Brian Schmetzer, a longtime assistant and former Sounders player, and added a dynamic attacking midfield playmaker in Nicolas Lodeiro, who completely transformed the Sounders’ offense. And things just clicked. The team lost just two of their last 19 games.
Fast-forward to this Saturday: the Sounders’ dramatic and improbable comeback campaign earned them the club’s long-awaited MLS Cup Final debut. After winning multiple US Open Cups and a Supporters Shields in recent years, the unlikeliest of seasons might result in Seattle’s first championship.
The Sounders kick off the MLS Cup Final against Toronto FC at BMO Field in Ontario on Saturday at 5 (televised on Fox). Here are three things to watch for that will determine whether or not the Emerald City will add a soccer title to its trophy case.
The Offense Must Keep Rolling
Since his arrival in Seattle, Lodeiro spearheaded the Sounders’ attack with his creative passes. While the local superstar rookie Jordan Morris, has been a consistent scorer all season-long, his performance really took an upturn after the Uruguayan international joined the team. After a flu-ridden Morris scored the lone goal in the 1-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids in the Western Conference Championship with the flu, he even drew comparisons to Michael Jordan. The Lodeiro-Morris connection must remain hot, as the pair has combined for six goals and an assist in the Sounders’ five playoff games.
Veteran Defenders Need to Shine
Seattle has a talented central defense anchored by Chad Marshall (the only three-time MLS Defender of the Year) and Panamanian national team captain Roman Torres. The pair of towering defenders (both over 6 foot 2 inches) is one of the most experienced and talented duos in the MLS, but they also have a solid backup in Sounders legend Zach Scott. It’s the curtain call for Scott, who’s been playing for Seattle since walking onto the roster in 2002, as he plans to retire after the championship game. Toronto will test the veteran defense many times with an attack that features 2015 MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco and an in-form Jozy Altidore.
What Tricks Are Up the New Coach’s Sleeve?
Brian Schmetzer had a difficult decision to make when Clint Dempsey—Seattle’s highest-paid player—was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in September and ruled out for the remainder of the season. When he inserted Nelson Valdes—who hadn’t scored a goal all season-long—into the lineup in Dempsey’s stead, it drew some serious scrutiny. But after Valdes notched the game-winning goal against Sporting Kansas City in the first game of the playoffs, it was clear the coach’s risky decision had paid off. Schmetzer will likely make multiple tactical changes (Will he start Jordan Morris on the wing or at forward? Will Seattle’s captain Brad Evans be back in defense or out in midfield?) in the title match on Saturday, which could ultimately result the Sounders hoisting their first MLS Cup.
MLS Cup Final: Seattle Sounders at Toronto FC
Dec 10 at 5, BMO Field, Televised on Fox