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SEATTLE — They waited a decade to enjoy a celebration like this. As the Seattle Sounders paraded the championship trophy around their home stadium, only those clad in red headed for the exits.
Ten years after helping change the scope of Major League Soccer, Seattle fans finally got to see their team host the championship match. And they were rewarded with a second MLS title in the past four years.
“The players and the fans deserve this,” Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer said. “The players persevered because again it was a first half we needed to make some adjustments and they never quit. And the fans never stopped believing. I’m very happy and proud for the city and the fans.”
Kelvin Leerdam settled the nerves of those home fans with his 57th-minute goal off a deflection, Victor Rodriguez and Raul Ruidiaz added the cappers and the Sounders beat Toronto FC 3-1 Sunday to claim the MLS Cup.
Playing before the second-largest crowd for an MLS Cup final, the Sounders withstood a nervous first 45 minutes where Toronto was the better side before capitalizing on their opportunities in the second half and setting off a wild celebration that lasted nearly an hour after the final whistle. CenturyLink Field shook when Rodriguez gave Seattle a 2-0 lead in the 76th minute and the stadium rattled again when Ruidiaz made it 3-0 in the 90th.
“I got a little teary-eyed,” Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “Not so much for winning the trophy, but winning it at home with our fans and having that positivity and joyous moments that you can share with everybody.”
Seattle had craved this moment since it joined the league in 2009. The Sounders brought record crowds and record success — 11 straight playoff appearances — but its previous two appearances in the finals both required trips to Toronto. The Sounders wanted the showcase of playing for a championship with a stadium crammed full of green.
They got their wish.
The 69,274 in attendance was a stadium record, the largest crowd to see a soccer match in Seattle, and the second-largest to witness an MLS Cup final behind last year’s game in Atlanta. Seattle became the sixth franchise in league history with multiple titles. The Sounders joined Houston, Sporting Kansas City and San Jose with two titles. The LA Galaxy have five, and D.C. United four.
It was among the most anticipated finals in league history, and Seattle — eventually — delivered.
“If we played this game in Toronto, we would have lost,” Seattle midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “But with our fans, the ball bouncing our way at home, we won this game.”
Those fans were forced to sit nervously on their hands for nearly an hour. Toronto dominated possession in the first half and seemed the more likely side to find a goal.
But a momentary breakdown by Toronto allowed Seattle to take the lead.
“Up until their first goal, I thought things were going our way. I thought we were playing well and had things under control,” Toronto defender Justin Morrow said. “They come down and score, and it’s tough after that.”
Leerdam scored the first goal of Seattle’s season back in March and put Seattle ahead 1-0 in the final. He shook free from Nicolas Benezet and his shot into the middle of the goal mouth appeared more like a cross, but it didn’t matter when it caught the left shin of Morrow and went past goalkeeper Quentin Westberg.
Toronto thought Jonathan Osorio had been fouled in the build up to the goal and Leerdam never should have had a shot to take.
“We know that the standard of MLS refereeing is next to horrible,” Toronto’s Jozy Altidore said.
It was Seattle’s first goal in a title match after being held scoreless in each of the two finals played in Toronto. The Sounders won the 2016 championship in a shootout.
“You always know that to break the game open, you’re going to need that extra bit of sharpness, extra bit of quality, or a little bit of a break, a bounce or a deflection,” Toronto midfielder Michael Bradley said. “Obviously, they got that today.”
The second goal was the eventual game-winner for Seattle. Rodriguez’s goal started with Gustav Svensson’s pass to Nicolas Lodeiro, who redirected the ball to Rodriguez near the top of the penalty area. Rodriguez took a couple of touches to find space and Westberg couldn’t get his hand on the shot to the far post.
“I think I deserved that,” said Rodriguez, who subbed in at the 61st minute and was MVP of the game. “Because I’ve worked a lot, every single day for this moment. It’s been some hard seasons for me, especially this year, there were a lot of injuries.”
Imported from Spain in the second half of 2017, Rodriguez — the team’s third-highest-paid player at a reported $1.087 million this season — has struggled to stay on the field. A knee injury carried over from late 2017 and derailed the first few months of his 2018 campaign as the Sounders struggled to find ways to keep him healthy more than a few consecutive matches.
When the scenario repeated itself this season, the option of using him later in games ultimately prevailed. Rodriguez made just 14 starts — same as last year — and tallied a career-low 1,124 minutes, but became a valuable late-season weapon off the bench.
Altidore, who hadn’t played in more than a month and came on as a substitute midway through the second half, pulled one back for Toronto with a header in the third minute of stoppage time.