For the second year in a row, the Seattle Sounders are bound for the MLS Cup finals in Toronto. An early goal in the second leg of the Western Conference finals Thursday put things in cruise control, and Seattle finished off the depleted Houston Dynamo, 3-0, and 5-0 on aggregate.
Coach Brian Schmetzer was a proud guy after securing the Western Conference championship at home for the first time in club history.
“The best part of my evening was when (Osvaldo Alonso) took the trophy up to the fans, and those fans stayed and they cheered every single player that raised the cup,” Schmetzer said. “That is the example that I keep talking about: The relationship between the fans and the players is what makes this club so special.”
The winning goal came from Victor Rodriguez, back in the starting lineup for the first time in four matches. In the 23rd minute, Rodriguez worked a give-and-go with striker Will Bruin, who slipped the return ball between a pair of Dynamo defenders to give Rodriguez a one-on-one with Dynamo keeper Joe Willis.
Rodriguez slotted the ball past Willis to slam the series shut, following Seattle’s convincing 2-0 win on the road in the first leg Nov. 21.
Pre-game, the Everest-sized climb for Houston was made steeper with word the visitors would be without center back Philippe Senderos (strained quad), and backup winger Romell Quioto (illness). Add in the suspensions of starting forward Alberth Elis and outside back Jalil Anibaba, as well as an ACL tear for outside back A.J. DeLaGarza earlier in the playoffs, and coach Wilmer Cabrera’s side never had much of a shot.
Even absent Alonso due to injury and lacking Roman Torres for yellow-card accumulation, Seattle was never troubled by the Dynamo, which tried but failed to adapt its style of play to confront the Sounders’ dominance of possession.
Clint Dempsey put the match to bed in the 57th minute, scoring on a low cross from the left side from Joevin Jones that he met at the back post. The goal was the third of the playoffs for Dempsey, who missed the 2016 MLS Cup run while dealing with an irregular heartbeat.
Houston’s Tomas Martinez was sent off in the 66th minute when he shoved substitute Jordy Delem’s head after the 24-year-old fouled Martinez on a contested header. Prior to his ejection, Martinez created the Dynamo’s two best chances, both stopped by Stefan Frei, back in goal after missing the series opener.
Will Bruin added the final score in the 73rd minute, converting a long through ball from substitute Harry Shipp that found Bruin in space. Bruin, who joined Seattle from Houston in the off-season, scored three times against his former club in four meetings.
“I’ve been saying, third time’s the charm,” Bruin said. “This is going to be my third MLS Cup, and this is the one we’re going to win. The older I get, the less you take for granted. It’s something you can reflect back on and say, ‘We’ve got something special here.’ I believe that, and we’ve still got one more game.
“I think if we all play to our potential, we can beat anybody in this league anywhere.”
Seattle now turns its attention to Supporters’ Shield winners Toronto FC, keen to avenge last year’s penalty-shootout defeat. In the Eastern finals, Toronto edged out the Columbus Crew 1-0 on aggregate. The Sounders again travel to BMO Field for the Dec. 9 title shot because the better regular-season record earns the right to host.
Schmetzer believes that his group has the talent and the dedication to repeat as champions against an equally star-studded Toronto lineup.
“At the beginning of the year, we had a motivated, veteran group,” he said. “We had a team that during that long (unbeaten) streak was able to manufacture points to get us into second place, which was key.
“I know they want another championship. Dempsey is super-motivated. The guys who were here last year are super motivated. I think the group is ready to compete for another championship.”