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Matt Calkins: Unshakable Sounders stun everybody but themselves in advancing to third MLS Cup final

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 30, 2019

Seattle Sounders celebrate after defeated Los Angeles FC during the MLS soccer Western Conference final, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, in Los Angeles. Seattle won 3-1. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP)
Seattle Sounders celebrate after defeated Los Angeles FC during the MLS soccer Western Conference final, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, in Los Angeles. Seattle won 3-1. (Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

LOS ANGELES – LAFC had the best regular-season record in Major League Soccer history. It had a supporters section you could hear from the other side of the skyline. It had Jerry West introduce its mascot, and the shoo-in MVP wearing No. 10.

This was the Sounders’ response.

And?????

Tuesday night might not have been the biggest win in Sounders history, but it was the most impressive. And not just because they took an ax to their redwood of an opponent, but because of the way they did it – coming from behind, then dominating their revered foe.

When LAFC scored 17 minutes into the game, it looked as though it was going to spend the rest of the evening treating Seattle like an 11-man pinata, torturing an inferior opponent with its speed and skill. By the end of the night, though, the Sounders came away with a 3-1 victory to advance to another MLS Cup.

This, simply put, was experience outshining talent. It was poise proving more pivotal than payroll – moxie outperforming money.

“We never stopped believing we could win. Our mentality has always been strong here at the Seattle Sounders. We always have a winning mentality, and it showed tonight,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said. “We could have gone into a shell. We could have sat back and accepted we would lose, but we didn’t.”

No MLS team had been as dominant as LAFC was during the regular season. It wasn’t just its league-record 72 points – 16 more than the Sounders – it was its record 48-goal differential, too.

That was 40 better than any team in the Western Conference, and not all that surprising given who composed its roster. Striker Carlos Vela had scored 11 goals in his past 11 games while compiling a league-high 34 goals on the season. Teammate Diego Rossi had 16 goals of his own, good for the fourth most in the league.

Betting $1 on the Sounders on Tuesday would have earned you about $6, according to most gambling sites. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what its players wanted.

“If they want to let us be the underdog and them the favorite, then so be it,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said last week. “We’ll take it. Please, feel as confident as you want. Don’t give us any respect.”

Early on, it appeared any lack of respect would have been justified. At the 17-minute mark, LAFC midfielder Eduard Atuesta scored from 28 yards out on a set piece.

LAFC’s primary fan group – known as “3252” for the number of seats in the supporters section – exploded and infused the already electric ambience with more energy. Given LAFC’s five-goal showing vs. the Galaxy six days earlier, it looked as though a romp was imminent.

But 5 minutes later, Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz shook his defender and scored from just inside the penalty area to make it 1-1. The goal didn’t silence the Banc of California Stadium crowd, but it did stun it. Four minutes later, midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro followed with Seattle’s biggest goal of the season, sliding it by LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller to give his team the lead.

Had you polled 100 soccer writers at the 20-minute mark, and asked which team was most likely to score the next two goals, 99 would have said LAFC. But what they would have forgotten was that the Sounders, unlike LAFC, had been here before.

“The many times we have to been to the MLS Cup has been off grit, has been off not playing pretty. It’s been off winning in different ways. Today we won in a different way,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “In other games, maybe we play pretty. But we knew it was going to be a tough opponent, and we adjusted accordingly. … It was just overall a fantastic performance.”

This was Seattle’s third trip to the MLS Cup semifinals in the past four years. It had reached the final in two of those seasons and won it all in 2016.

LAFC might have one of the top payrolls in the league, but that money can’t buy experience. And it certainly can’t buy a championship.

Tuesday, the Sounders were immune to one of the league’s great atmospheres. The crowd kept chanting, LAFC partial owner Will Ferrell kept waving his towels, but Seattle didn’t stop.

Instead, it got another goal from Ruidiaz in the 64th minute to all but wrap up the match. Upset complete. All-time victory sealed.

On Oct. 10, Seattle will play Toronto, which beat Atlanta 2-1 Wednesday in the Eastern Conference final. It remains to be seen whether the Sounders will be the favorite, but they’ll be ready.

They might have just shocked MLS, but rest assured – they didn’t shock themselves.

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