Seattle Sounders Contain Vela, LAFC to Return to MLS Cup Final

The Sounders are headed to their third MLS Cup final in four years after knocking off the best regular-season team in MLS history.
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The Seattle Sounders care little for LAFC's regular-season dominance and quest for a Shield-Cup double.

The Sounders recovered from an early concession to stun MLS's best team in 2019, winning 3-1 in the Western Conference final and securing a place in the MLS Cup final for a third time in four seasons. Seattle will either host Toronto FC or play at defending champion Atlanta United in the Nov. 10 final, something that will be determined following Wednesday's Eastern Conference final.

It looked like LAFC would continue to steamroll its competition when Eduard Atuesta laced a perfect free kick by Stefan Frei in the 17th minute, but Seattle responded almost immediately. Raul Ruidiaz equalized five minutes later, and Nicolas Lodeiro scored four minutes after that to tilt the scales. Ruidiaz put the game on ice in the second half, clinically finishing in the 64th minute to silence the Banc of California crowd, which turned unruly as the frustration set in, with select fans hurling beers onto the field–not unlike the scenes in last year's home playoff loss to Real Salt Lake.

The frustration was compounded as Seattle benefited from some curious lack of VAR intervention, with a pair of apparent handballs on Sounders defenders going uncalled and unreviewed as LAFC attempted to come back.

Nevertheless, it's Seattle headed to MLS Cup, while LAFC is left wondering what could have been as its magical season prematurely comes to an end. 

Here are three thoughts on the Western Conference final:

Seattle contains Vela, is clinical with its chances

Seattle sent a message in the 10th minute, when center back Xavier Arreaga body checked Carlos Vela by shouldering into him. Regardless of whether it was called a foul–and it wasn't, somehow ruled to be a fair shoulder-to-shoulder challenge–it got a loud point across that Seattle was going to be badgering Vela, selling out to remove him from the equation.

It largely worked. LAFC's one goal came off a video-game sequence from Vela, one that ended with him going into a spin move and then going to ground, never truly appearing to be tripped but still earning the call. With Seattle anticipating Vela to take the ensuing free kick, Atuesta took it instead, catching the Sounders a step off and opening the scoring.

After that, though, the game plan was executed to perfection. Vela, he of the 34 regular-season goals and two more vs. the LA Galaxy Thursday night, put one speculative shot on frame all night. He was a non-factor, and with him not firing like the league has been accustomed to seeing all season, the rest of his team followed suit.

It was imperative that Seattle answered LAFC's opener so as to not let the hosts run away with the momentum, and the Sounders did that on a defense-optional night for Bob Bradley's squad. If there's a weakness about LAFC, it's in the back, and Ruidiaz and Lodeiro took full advantage, pouncing on their opportunities and cashing in on them. Seattle didn't concede the same kinds of chances, and the dynamic and daunting LAFC wound up looking rather toothless. 

The loss was just LAFC's second at home all season.

Nicolas Lodeiro scores for Seattle Sounders vs. LAFC

Ruidiaz and Lodeiro earn their keep

Playoff victories often come down to superstars stepping up, and while Vela and Diego Rossi were silenced for LAFC, Ruidiaz and Lodeiro were ever-present for Seattle. They dropped deep to help stifle and defend and then made sure to come up in the final third with the decisive touches.

Ruidiaz toyed with Eddie Segura on Seattle's first, spinning on the center back and quickly firing to beat former Sounder Tyler Miller.

It was Lodeiro's turn soon after, capping a sequence started by Ruidiaz at midfield. The Peruvian forward's presence caused Atuesta to cheat into the box to provide extra cover, and with Lee Nguyen doubling Joevin Jones on the ball, it opened up space and a shooting lane for Lodeiro. The Uruguayan international playmaker made no mistake with his low blast for the eventual game-winning goal.

Ruidiaz put the match to rest in the second half, not long after LAFC had made a tactical change by bringing on Adama Diomande, who was a game-changer vs. the LA Galaxy in the conference semifinals. This one was a combination of a poor clearance–where was Walker Zimmerman directing this ball, exactly?–and four clinical touches, two apiece for Lodeiro and Ruidiaz, with the latter getting the goal, his sixth in five career MLS playoff matches.

Seattle and manager Brian Schmetzer deserve credit for the all-around effort, but it doesn't happen without the two stars shining bright in the L.A. spotlight.

What to make of LAFC's season

In order to go down as the best ever, you've got to win it all. Toronto FC accomplished that in 2017, winning the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup after, at the time, setting a record for most regular-season points (a mark that's since been bested twice).

The same can't be said for LAFC, and now only two of the last 11 Shield winners–Toronto, 2017; LA Galaxy, 2011–and seven overall have went on to win MLS Cup. It's hard to emerge as a champion after playoffs, and while you can debate the merits of what's effectively a cup competition determining the winner after a lengthy regular season, as opposed to the season-long body of work speaking for itself, that's just how things are structured.

LAFC set a record for points, goal differential and was arguably the most dominant regular-season team MLS has ever had. It boasted a record-setting star in Vela, who had a hand in 49 goals. That's more than seven teams had all season. It finally got over the Galaxy hump in the previous round. But it ultimately fell short, not just of winning MLS Cup, but of reaching the title game altogether. On paper, you'd probably take this LAFC team over any other the league has had. In practice, it goes down as another also-ran, albeit one with a historic backstory.