The conference championship feeling had just set in Thursday night, but a champagne-soaked Brian Schmetzer wasn’t ready to start comparing last year’s and this year’s Sounders squads.
But the coach did note one similarity between the two teams after Seattle routed Houston, 3-0, to set up an MLS Cup rematch with Toronto.
“Both teams had the right mindset, the right mental strength to persevere in critical moments,” Schmetzer said.
It has been a long, arduous road for the Sounders this season, dealing with a championship hangover, the uncertain status of two of its brightest stars, and other injuries to key players.
But they have survived all of that to play for the MLS title again. Here are the three biggest reasons why Seattle has been able to do that.
A HEALTHY, MOTIVATED DEMPSEY
It cannot be overstated how up in the air Dempsey’s season-long status was after missing the final four months of last season with an irregular heartbeat that required two offseason procedures.
But the 34-year-old Texas native answered the bell better than anybody expected him to.
Given the circumstances, he might have had his best season in the MLS — 12 goals during the regular season, with another three goals during this postseason, which is a career best.
As important, he logged 28 starts, including the playoffs, and played a total of 2,470 minutes, which is the second-most action in his MLS career behind his 2,709 minutes he played in his second year in New England in 2005.
And after the 3-0 win Thursday, Dempsey — back to being his full fiery, creative self — celebrated the moment like he had just won a World Cup game.
“Dempsey is super, super motivated,” Schmetzer said.
OFFSEASON MOVES PANNED OUT
In his quest to get younger and more athletic, general manager Garth Lagerway made a lot of sneaky-good moves in the offseason.
Forward Will Bruin scored 11 goals during the regular season, second-most on the club behind Dempsey. Midfielder Gustav Svensson’s versatility to play multiple positions has been invaluable. Defenders Kelvin Leerdam and Nouhou have fortified both outside back positions, especially after Brad Evans’ constant battle with various injuries. And midseason acquistion Victor Rodriguez, also a midfielder, is playing too well now not to start in the MLS Cup on the wing.
In all, during the regular season, 19 of the team’s 52 goals (37 percent production), and 11 of 52 assists (21 percent production) came from newcomers.
But that production from that nucleus is up dramatically in the playoffs: Four of the seven goals (57 percent), and six of the 10 assists (60 percent) have been tallied by players who were not on the roster a season ago.
It is conceivable that the Sounders’ starting XI for the MLS Cup could feature those five aforementioned first-year guys.
What more can Stefan Frei do?
He already has made arguably the greatest save in MLS Cup history against Jozy Altidore in extra time in last season’s title match.
And although Frei’s 1.09 goals against per game average was second in the league to Sporting Kansas City’s Tim Melia (0.77) for goalkeepers with 20 or more appearances, he did lead the league in shutouts (13).
Oh yeah, Frei has now set a league record with 557 consecutive minutes of shutout soccer in the playoffs. The team hasn’t allowed a goal in six consecutive MLS postseason matches, dating back to last season.
True to his humble nature, Frei credited the guys in front of him making his job easy.
But late in the first half Thursday night, Frei made two incredible, fully-horizontal saves on a pair of Tomas Martinez rocket shots at the end of the first half to preserve a 1-0 Seattle lead.
That has become sort of the norm this time of year.
“I said this after last year, you get these opportunities possibly once in a lifetime — and we got it last year,” Frei said. “One year later, we’ve found ourselves with the same opportunity ... and it would be amazing to do something similar.”