Good as Los Angeles FC was alleged to be, they were little match Tuesday night for the badasses from Seattle.
The Sounders didn’t care about LAFC’s 72-point regular season, an MLS record, or its record-tying 85 goals. Didn’t matter that LA gave up only 37. The facts that the second-year club held a 3-0-1 advantage in the two-year head-to-head, or that Vegas bookies pronounced it 6-1 favorites, or even that the Western Conference final was at LA’s sold-out Banc of California home field, were of little consequence.
The Sounders quickly overcame a 1-0 deficit by scoring twice in four minutes and, despite collisions and fouls that repeatedly left numerous players grimacing in the grass, flat-out dominated for a 3-1 triumph that sent them to their third MLS Cup in four years.
The outcome was a stunner.
“That is a great, great team that we just beat,” said Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer. “They were deservedly the favorites because in this new playoff format, they earned the right to host these home games. Winning away from home is a challenge, which is credit to my team. They withstood a lot of pressure and a lot of nerves there, after LAFC scored the first goal.
“We could have gone into a shell, but we didn’t. We found a way to score the equalizer. Then we stunned LA with the second goal. They’re going, ‘It shouldn’t happen.’ The third goal was icing on the cake.”
The Eastern Conference final Wednesday (5 p.m. PT, FS1, FOX Deportes) between host Atlanta United and Toronto FC will determine the championship location. A win by second-seeded Atlanta (18-12-4 regular season) means the Sounders will play for the title Nov. 10 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the Seahawks beat the Falcons Sunday.
A win by fourth-seeded Toronto (13-10-11) means the No. 2-seeded Sounders, whose playoff appearances in all 11 seasons is a continuing record, will host their first MLS Cup.
Eduard Atuesta, one of three LA players named to the MLS Best XI last week (the Sounders had none), scored off a free kick in the 17th minute when the Sounders misaligned their defense. The set piece proved to be the lone score for free-wheeling LA, whose star, MLS leading scorer and likely MVP Carlos Vega, was shut down by an aggressive Seattle defense that drew 12 fouls.
“We played inside-out, made them go outside, and then, doubled down as much as possible,” said Cristian Roldan. “We put pressure whenever we could when they wanted to deliver a ball, and then obviously stopped Vela.
“From top to bottom, our guys put in a shift.”
LAFC coach Bob Bradley, whose team beat the crosstown Galaxy 5-3 in the West semifinals last week to win the franchise’s first playoff game, said the Sounders took away the middle.
“They had numbers back, they clogged the middle, they defended in a compact and strong way,” he said. “If you don’t move the ball quick enough, when you get up there it’s not easy to get shots. I think we had four shots on goal.”
Raul Ruidiaz and Nicolas Lodeiro scored four minutes apart to put Seattle up 2-1. In the 64th minute Ruidiaz, the Sounders’ leading scorer with 11 goals, completed a brace when Lodeiro stole an attempted clearance and fed him for a clean shot past goalie Tyler Miller, a former Sounders backup.
Ruidíaz has six goals in five career MLS postseason games.
In the playoffs’ first round, the Sounders, led by Jordan Morris, survived a wild 4-3 extra-time win at home over FC Dallas. They seemed more in control in the semis, downing Real Salt Lake 2-0 behind second-half goals from Lodeiro and Gustav Svensson.
They were in command on the road Tuesday against the league’s best regular season team. Wherever the championship is played, the Sounders, steeped in post-season experience, appear uniquely equipped to handle everything tossed at them.