Underdogs. Not a word one expects to use to describe the record-setting MLS Supporters’ Shield winners who spent the entire regular season polishing a Cup before it was squarely in their hands. The MLS Cup was always the end goal, always in their sights. “Just two more wins,” likely will echo in MLS goal-scoring leader Captain Carlos Vela’s mind for months to come. Yet, in the postseason, in a mere two matches (not even a week apart), the team that yielded 20 goals at home in 17 regular season games, leaked 6. The playoffs was where the brilliance of a polished Supporters’ Shield faded, and underneath the shine, we find tiny dents, signs of weakness that were always there, just hidden by factors like scheduling, opportunities and a little magic. Bottom line, the Seattle Sounders are going back to the MLS Cup Final for the third time in four years. And the expansion team that just days before savored their first playoffs victory, now tasted the bitterness of defeat. It was their second loss at home all year. It was their biggest too.
Tonight, the Seattle Sounders dealt LAFC their fatal blow, a loss at home, when it mattered most. The Sounders came in hot, the match began chippy, physically rough and right away leveled the playing field. The offensive engine that ran LAFC through the regular season sputtered to a steady trickle and the visitors stymied the not-so-secret weapon, the Carlos Vela factor.
It began somewhat predictably. Carlos Vela drew a foul near the top of the box. Less predictably, Eduard Atuesta took the free kick and it soured past Seattle’s Stefan Frei.
But the Sounders’ reply was in the 22nd minute thanks to their scoring ace Raul Ruidiaz. He took the opportunity when it arose. An error by Eddie Segura, a lucky bounce and a swift strike inside the near post leveled the score. By the 26th minute, Seattle had already taken a 2-1 lead, courtesy of Nicolas Lodeiro.
In the second half, more of the same continued. Not even their savior from last week’s match against their crosstown rivals, Adama Diomande, nor a returning Mark-Anthony Kaye, could salvage the disastrous developments from playing out. Whereas, early in the season, LAFC was criticized for pouncing too fast, for not pacing themselves, tonight, the ball seemed to move slower than ever before. Then, in the 64th minute, Ruidiaz notched his brace, again, inside the post. Desperation isn’t a fun look on anyone, and the top seeded LAFC were no exception. If El Trafico brought out glimpses of the best in them, the Western Conference Final brought out the worst.
LAFC’s 72 point season, the most in MLS history, seemed a distant memory in the closing moments of the Western Conference Final. The luster has faded. The season came to a screeching halt few had predicted.
“We have to use all the bad things and bad moments to get better and prepare ourselves for next season,” Vela concludes.
In a league where parity rules, being the best is not good enough. But, being the smartest often is.