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Streakless In Seattle

A long history of choking ends with a title for MLS's darlings

SEATTLE HAS been the golden child of MLS ever since its 2009 league debut in front of boisterous crowds that have since swelled to more than 40,000 fans per game—by far the most in MLS (and in the top five of any soccer club in the world outside of Europe). The Sounders have connected deeply with Seattleites for a number of reasons: the city's alternative, Europhilic vibe; the rich history of a team name that goes back to the glory days of the 1970s' Pelé-era NASL; and, not least, the felicitous timing of starting in MLS just after the NBA's SuperSonics left town for Oklahoma City. Simply stated: More than any other city, Seattle puts the Major League in MLS.

But for all the success the Sounders have had in building a soccer culture, their reputation on the field has become one of a team that always chokes in the postseason. Seven times Seattle qualified for the MLS playoffs in its first seven seasons; seven times it failed to reach the final. The pain for the fans in "rave green" only increased last year when their hated rivals, the Portland Timbers, won the league.

Last Saturday in Toronto, however, the soccer gods finally shone on the Emerald City at the close of season number 8. The Sounders won the 2016 MLS Cup final on penalty kicks after a dreary 0--0 tie with Toronto FC in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 36,000. That Seattle somehow won despite not having a single shot on goal was 100% in line with the strangeness of its season. The Sounders fired their longtime coach, Sigi Schmid, in midseason and replaced him with Brian Schmetzer, who led them on a revival to barely qualify for the playoffs. Without star forward Clint Dempsey, who was out with an irregular heartbeat, Seattle continued its tear into the postseason behind Uruguayan midfielder Nicolás Lodeiro and rookie American forward Jordan Morris.

But the hero on Saturday was goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who defied belief to make the greatest high-stakes save in MLS history, on a looping extra-time header by Toronto's Jozy Altidore. When Román Torres converted the clinching penalty kick, the burly defender banded his teammates together to salute the joyous sliver of Seattle supporters in an upper corner of Toronto's stadium. The Sounders, at long last, are playoff chokers no more.