Monday November 28th, 2016

At the end of a season that was careening toward disaster four months ago, the Seattle Sounders are headed to their first MLS Cup final.

The turnaround sparked by the promotion of Brian Schmetzer to head coach and the arrival of Uruguayan playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro carried Seattle into the playoffs as the hottest team in the Western Conference. That desperate 8-2-4 climb forged a group with the mettle and composure previous Sounders squads lacked, and that was evident Sunday afternoon outside Denver. Seattle became the first visiting team to beat the Colorado Rapids this year. The 1-0 win—thanks to a goal by rookie Jordan Morris—combined with a 2-1 victory in Tuesday’s opener, clinched the Sounders first conference championship and sends them to the league title game.

Seattle will visit Toronto FC or host the Montreal Impact in the Dec. 10 final. The Eastern title will be decided Wednesday in Ontario.

Here are three thoughts from Seattle’s long-awaited triumph at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

Finally a final for Seattle

Despite four U.S. Open Cup titles, a Supporters Shield and an impressive run of seven straight playoff appearances, Seattle couldn’t solve the MLS Cup playoff puzzle. Each early exit added to the pressure on coach Sigi Schmid, who’d been at the helm since the club entered MLS in 2009. Then last year came the ultimate agony—the Portland Timbers won the Cup first. This July, while on a two-wins-in-11-games slide, matching their rivals to the south seemed like an afterthought. Schmid was fired, Schmetzer and Lodeiro arrived and the Sounders went on a 3-0-1 run. Then Clint Dempsey was sidelined with a heart ailment just as Morris seemed to be finding his game. This couldn’t possibly be the year.

But then so much fell into place. Many foreign players need time to acclimate to MLS. Lodeiro needed one game. He made his debut on July 31 and a week later, had two assists as the Sounders won in Orlando. His skill, vision and underrated fitness changed the team, and as Morris got comfortable and Schmetzer pulled the locker room together, the Sounders (18-15-6) no longer resembled the club that stumbled through the first five months of the season. There was almost no margin for error this fall, but those stakes set the table for a playoff run.

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Paraguayan striker Nelson Valdez enjoyed a playoff renaissance. His two goals doubled his all-time regular season output. Lodeiro became the leading scorer in the Sounders checkered playoff history in just four games, notching three in the quarterfinal defeat of Supporters Shield-winning FC Dallas and then a fourth in the first leg against Colorado. Midfielder Cristian Roldan blossomed. The September return of Román Torres, who partnered with Chad Marshall in back, made a key difference in defense. He’d been out for a year with a knee injury. And the intangibles the Sounders had been missing for seven previous seasons were there. And there's been  a bit of good fortune as well (see the knockout-round win over Sporting Kansas City and Mauro Diaz's injury).

“They never quit,” Schmetzer told ESPN on Sunday. “The whole team just kind of figures out ways how to win games. That’s their biggest strength. Each game is different.”

Seattle had won only one of nine road playoff games before Sunday. It had squandered two previous conference final appearances. The third time turned out to be a charm in the most unlikely of seasons.

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Jordan Morris comes of age

The pressure of being a college player called up to the senior U.S. national team didn’t see to phase him. He got past an early scoring drought and the scrutiny that accompanies playing in front of tens of thousands of fans in his hometown. And he weathered the tactical upheaval that followed Dempsey’s departure and Lodeiro’s arrival. After all that, there was little doubt the playoffs would phase Jordan Morris.

Despite spending two days in bed with the flu following Tuesday’s opener, Morris was in the starting 11 on Sunday and after a quiet first half, he delivered the knockout blow. The league’s rookie of the year found a bit more room to roam after switching from the right to the left after halftime and in the 56th minute he notched his second playoff goal. Lodeiro started the play with a probing ball from midfield and Colorado defender Jared Watts sent his headed clearance straight to Valdez. The forward chested it down and poked the ball back between the Rapids center backs to Morris, who got his shot off just as goalkeeper Zac MacMath crashed into him. The right-footed chip floated in, and that was all Seattle needed.

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Morris was injured on the play. He received treatment on the sideline and bravely fought his way through the rest of the game even though he clearly wasn’t 100 percent.

It was yet another milestone for Morris, who’s handled everything that has come his way during a season that’s been far more complicated and challenging than he’d imagined. He now has 14 goals and five assists, and now he’s helped lift his hometown club to new heights.

“I think just playing with confidence,” Morris told ESPN when asked what’s helped him get over so many hurdles. “I was listening to too much of the outside world [at the start of the season]. I put that all away … Now I’m just playing with more confidence.”

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Rapids attack remains a trickle

At some point, it was bound to catch up with them. As good as Colorado (16-9-13) had been defensively this year and as unbeatable as they’d been at home, you’re courting danger if you can’t score goals. The Rapids managed just 39 during the regular season. That was the second-lowest total in MLS. And their goal in Seattle last week came on a fortunate deflection.

The fact that they were shut out Sunday wasn’t for lack of trying. The Rapids came out buzzing, fueled by Jermaine Jones’ relentless work in midfield. Playing as a No. 10 behind forward Kevin Doyle, Jones was on the ball constantly during a frenetic first half hour, during which Colorado’s press kept Seattle pinned in its own half. The Rapids had several free kick opportunity and in the 23rd, Doyle sent a dangerous low cross from the left that was just out of his teammates’ reach. According to ESPN, the Rapids took more touches in the attacking third during the first half than they had in any first half this year.

But the final product wasn’t there. In fact, there was not a single shot on target. And when Jones began to tire in the second half, and with Doyle erased by Seattle’s center backs, Colorado ran out of ideas. Their appeal for a handball on Marshall midway through the second half went unanswered, and their massive possession advantage was for naught. The Rapids just couldn’t find a way through.

That hadn’t mattered before Sunday. Colorado was the master of the 1-0 win. But needing a goal on Sundayafter losing the opener, the Rapids lacked the dynamism and precision that makes the difference. All 16 shots missed their mark. Coach Pablo Mastroeni had to make a couple lineup changes Sunday thanks to the suspension of midfielder Sam Cronin. Forward Dominique Badji, who can stretch a back line with his speed, was benched as Doyle and Jones pushed up and Michael Azira and Dillon Powers filled in behind. That may have upset the chemistry a bit, but offensive production had been the Rapids' weakness all year, and it came back to bite them at the worst possible time.

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