It was a season of ever-changing narrative for the now MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders. A season that saw Obafemi Martins decamp to China before a ball was kicked, Clint Dempsey sidelined by heart problems, a midseason coaching change, Jordan Morris declared an early-season bust and then given Rookie of the Year honors. We’re exhausted just thinking about it. For more perspective on an emotionally turbulent season that ended in glory, we turn to a man who lived it every day: The Seattle Times’ Sounders beat writer, Matt Pentz.
MiB: You covered the Sounders, day-in, day-out, for the last nine months. How do you understand this season?
MP: Probably the biggest misconception about my job is that I’m a diehard Sounders fan, that I’m openly rooting them on from the press box. But as a reporter, my position entails unbiased neutrality. Obviously, it’s more complicated than that — as you develop working relationships with coaches and players, with an up-close view of their personal struggles, on a human level you connect with them — but I often say that my only rooting interest is for a good story.
And in that, more than anything else, this season was good to me.
This team was never boring, and the narrative was always fresh. It’s almost hard to believe that Obafemi was on this roster and expected to be a major contributor just weeks before this season kicked off.
Watching Jordan’s development as a player was a true joy of this campaign. He’s such an easy kid to pull for, and those early struggles so obviously ate away at him. The Sigi firing was tough, honestly. I have so much respect for his accomplishments as a coach, and he was unnecessarily kind to me when I was first getting my footing on the beat. On the flip side of that, seeing Seattle’s own Brian Schmetzer get to bring that long-sought MLS Cup to his hometown was really cool to experience.
MiB: The obvious aside, was there a more nuanced, subtle changed the helped the Sounders turn their season around? A detail that someone who isn’t around the team as much as yourself might not know.
MP: The ease with which Schmetzer won over the locker room I think glosses over just how crucial those early days of his tenure were. To shamelessly plug my own work, the Clint Dempsey section of this feature [READ HERE] gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how Schmetzer was able to get Seattle’s veterans onboard what he was trying to accomplish.
The midseason arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro from Boca Juniors was also so, so important, not just on the field but in the locker room, as well. One of my favorite anecdotes from this season is that, prior to his first game with the Sounders back in late July, Lodeiro took it upon himself to shut off the team’s usual pregame music and told his new teammates they needed to focus. An action like that takes some balls, and it’s illustrative of how he was immediately able to put his stamp on team. The return of influential center back Roman Torres from injury didn’t hurt, either.
MiB: That Saturday night performance from Stefan Frei. Put in context what it was like to witness that in person. And give us a sense of the kind of person he is on the pitch, in the locker room and away from football.
MP: Stefan was transcendent on Saturday in Toronto. And going back to that rooting-for-a-good-story mantra in the intro, you can’t ask for much more than the hero playing like that three years to the day that he was traded from the very team he is helping defeat. For Frei to be able to go back to BMO Field, where he had struggled through two seasons filled with injury before getting dealt to Seattle, speaks to his mental toughness.
Stefan is a pretty introspective guy. He’s been open about how shattered his confidence was when he arrived in Seattle, as well as how important the belief of goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra in him was. Frei really has come into his own here, and he has spoken often about how much he loves his adopted city. He certainly gave Seattle a memory to cherish on Saturday night. Defender Chad Marshall called Frei’s save on Jozy Altidore’s header the best he’s ever seen in person, and given everything at stake, I would have to agree with that assessment.
MiB: You recently wrote a fantastic piece on how Sigi Schmid was experiencing Seattle’s run up to MLS Cup [READ HERE]. He was in Toronto Saturday night for work with the league. How do you think he felt after the final?
MP: I think it was probably tough on him, as much as he’ll publicly say he is happy for the players, his former staff and his son, Kurt, who is still an assistant coach within the organization.
Schmid was so instrumental in getting this club up and running in the way that it did, and he devoted a lot of years in pursuit of the goal finally achieved last weekend. It’s hard to argue against the decision to let him go, given how the rest of the season transpired and how Schmetzer was able to push so many of the right buttons. But it’s hard not to feel sympathetic for Schmid, the Moses figure in the modern history of the Sounders who took them so close to the promised land but wasn’t allowed to set foot in it himself.
MiB: When Roman Torres’ shot hit the back of the net, it wasn’t just the culmination of Seattle’s season, but also the nine months you’ve spent trekking around North America following the club. As a beat writer, how do you experience the end of this championship season emotionally? And what did you do after your story was filed the night of the game?
MP: It was a special moment for me, too, both in a personal and professional sense. This was my first MLS Cup, either as a fan or a reporter, and the atmosphere in Toronto was electric. This is the first championship team I’ve ever covered, and I won’t soon forget that post-game locker room, shielding my cell phone and recorder from the Heineken showers. Very few reporters in any sport get the chance to experience something like that, so I made sure to soak it all in — literally, in the case of my jacket and all of that beer raining down.
I wish I had a more exciting story for what I did after I filed my game story, that me and Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone took to the town afterward. But kickoff was so late on the East Coast that we didn’t even leave the press box until 2, when all of the Toronto bars shut down for the night. I did have a couple of Canadian beers the next afternoon and evening to commemorate the occasion, though. Major League Soccer’s offseason is so short that I figured I better take advantage when I can.