SEATTLE — They waited a decade to enjoy a celebration like this. As the Seattle Sounders paraded the championship trophy around their home stadium, only those clad in red headed for the exits.
Ten years after helping change the scope of Major League Soccer, Seattle finally got to see its home team host the championship match. And it was rewarded with a second celebration in the past four years.
“The players and the fans deserve this,” Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer said. “The players persevered because again it was a first-half we needed to make some adjustments and they never quit. And the fans never stopped believing. I’m very happy and proud for the city and the fans.”
Kelvin Leerdam settled the nerves of those home fans with his 57th minute goal off a deflection, Victor Rodríguez and Raul Ruidíaz added the cappers and the Sounders beat Toronto FC 3-1 on Sunday to claim the MLS Cup title.
Playing before the second-largest crowd for an MLS Cup final, the Sounders withstood a nervy first 45 minutes where Toronto was the better side, before capitalizing on their opportunities in the second half and setting off a wild celebration that lasted nearly an hour after the final whistle. CenturyLink Field shook when Rodriguez gave Seattle a 2-0 lead in the 76th minute and the stadium rattled again when Ruidíaz made it 3-0 in the 90th .
“I got a little teary-eyed, not so much for winning the trophy but winning it at home with our fans and having that positivity and joyous moments that you can share with everybody,” Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei said.
Seattle had craved this moment since it joined the league in 2009. The Sounders brought record crowds and record success — 11 straight playoff appearances — but its previous two appearances in the finals both required trips to Toronto. Seattle wanted to be on display, wanted to show how soccer-mad the area was, wanted the showcase of playing for a championship with a stadium crammed full of green.
They got their wish. The 69,274 in attendance was a stadium record, the largest crowd to see a soccer match in Seattle, and the second-largest to witness an MLS Cup final behind last year in Atlanta. Seattle became the sixth franchise in league history with multiple titles. The Sounders joined Houston, Sporting Kansas City and San Jose with two titles. The LA Galaxy have five, and D.C. United four.
It was among the most anticipated finals in league history, and Seattle — eventually — delivered.
“If we played this game in Toronto, we would have lost,” Seattle midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “But with our fans, the ball bouncing our way at home, we won this game.”
Those fans were forced to nervously sit on their hands for nearly an hour because Toronto was the better side. Toronto dominated possession and seemed the more likely side to find a goal. They controlled possession. They connected their passes more often. They seemed comfortable in the setting, while Seattle seemed uneasy.
It was one momentary breakdown by Toronto and a bit of luck that allowed Seattle to take the lead.
“Up until their first goal, I thought things were going our way. I thought we were playing well and had things under control,” Toronto defender Justin Morrow said. “They come down and score, and it’s tough after that.”
Leerdam was an unassuming hero to break open a scoreless game. He scored the first goal of Seattle’s season back in March and put Seattle ahead in the final. Leerdam shook free from Nicolas Benezet and his shot into the middle of the goal mouth appeared more like a cross, but it didn’t matter when it caught the left shin of Morrow and went past goalkeeper Quentin Westberg.
Toronto felt Jonathan Osorio had been fouled in the build up to the goal and Leerdam never should have had a shot to take.
“We know that the standard of MLS refereeing is next to horrible,” Toronto’s Jozy Altidore said.
It was Seattle’s first goal in a final in 267 minutes after being held scoreless in each of the two finals played in Toronto. For Morrow it was another forgettable moment in a final after he missed during the sixth round of the penalty shootout in the 2016 final with his shot clanging off the crossbar.
“You always know that to break the game open, you’re going to need that extra bit of sharpness, extra bit of quality, or a little bit of a break, a bounce or a deflection,” Toronto midfielder Michael Bradley said. “Obviously, they got that today, and they were able then to use that to get the second goal.”
The second goal was the eventual game-winner for Seattle and the one which will be replayed for years. Rodríguez’s goal started with Gustav Svensson’s pass to Nicolas Lodeiro that left perfectly for Rodríguez near the top of the penalty area. He took a couple of touches to find space and Westberg couldn’t get his hand on the shot to the far post.
“I’m thrilled for all my teammates,” said Rodríguez, who subbed on in the 61st minute and was MVP of the game. “I think we deserve that and I’m really happy.”
Ruidíaz’s capper was one more moment to celebrate, beating Chris Mavinga to a clearance and the Peruvian scoring his fourth goal of the playoffs.
Altidore, who hadn’t played in more than a month and came on as a substitute midway through the second half, pulled one back for Toronto with a header in the third minute of stoppage time.
“In the first half, we were in control of the game. Obviously, they had a couple transitions, one right at the end,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney said. “At the end, it’s a game of scoring goals, and they scored goals. To be fair, they stuck with what they were doing in transition, and the opportunities presented themselves.”