TUKWILA — MLS’s new single-elimination playoff bracket took Cristian Roldan back to his childhood.
“Growing up in tournaments where you play two games in one day, that’s probably the one thing that I can compare it to,” said Roldan of his youth-soccer days traveling around Southern California. “Obviously the stress is a little bit different. The pressure is a little bit different. But the fact that growing up, you play two games in one day is pretty bizarre to me.”
As a defensive midfielder with Sounders FC and a member of the U.S. men’s national team, Roldan played six high-stakes matches in October and racked up 553 minutes on the field. The frequency of matches was about one every four days, including two CONCACAF Nations League games.
Those MLS matches only had the importance of winning on “Decision Day” to get Seattle a needed No. 2 seed for home-field advantage in the postseason. And it helped his team defend its best in recent memory to win the Western Conference championship in a hostile environment, among other challenges.
Finally out of the soccer vortex, Roldan and his teammates expressed Saturday they loved every grueling minute. Who wouldn’t, when the reward is an 11-day break before playing an MLS Cup on your home field?
“It was tough on the body,” Roldan said. “(We’re) able to rest our bodies and forget about soccer for a few days. Hosting, it becomes even busier. Families, friends coming to the game. But it’s what you want. We’re all stress-free here. We want to win, and we want to enjoy our soccer in front of our fans.”
The Sounders held their first training session Saturday since defeating Los Angeles FC at Banc of California Stadium on Tuesday for Seattle’s third conference title in its past four seasons. Pockets of players gathered at various homes to watch the Eastern Conference final the following night, admittedly cheering when Toronto FC reserve Nick DeLeon scored in the 78th minute to help the Reds upset defending MLS champion Atlanta United 2-1 for the East title.
Toronto (50 points) finished behind Seattle (56) in the overall league table, giving the Sounders the right to host the MLS Cup next Sunday. The club’s CenturyLink Field is already sold out, a record 70,000 expected to be in attendance.
“If you’re able to win this game, you get some real respect in terms of MLS teams that have accomplished something,” said Garth Lagerwey, who is general manager and president of soccer for the Sounders. “But if you don’t, then you’re a footnote. Then you’re the Buffalo Bills. We want to try to avoid that.”
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said his staff began carving out how the organization would handle the magnitude of the week on the chartered flight back to Seattle from L.A. The past two days were spent trying to fulfill ticket requests from family and friends. Saturday’s training at the club’s Starfire Sports facility is the players’ last until Wednesday.
Next week will be a test in mental focus as the club is swept up into another vortex of excitement and anticipation. A positive is six players remaining from the Sounders’ first MLS Cup win in 2016.
But that was on the road against Toronto.
“You’re not worried about some of the uncertainties,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said of the differences from his first Cup. Seattle also faced Toronto in the 2017 Cup, losing at the Reds’ BMO Field.
“I can cook my own meal,” Frei continued. “I can walk my dogs. Those are all things that can put you at ease because they’re comforts. The things you do a million times throughout the year. … When you can surround yourself with moments that you’ve done a million times, you kind of convince yourself that you’ve been there, done that, and that puts things at ease.”
Also putting the Sounders at ease is the way they advanced to the MLS Cup. LAFC, which won the Supporters’ Shield with a league-record 72 points, scored the game’s opening goal to unleash a fever-pitch among the sellout crowd of 22,099.
Led by forward Raul Ruidiaz, the Sounders disrupted LAFC’s potent attack to score three consecutive goals. Ruidiaz scored two, the brace in the 64th minute flipping the crowd to anger.
It appeared to continue after the match between Schmetzer and LAFC coach Bob Bradley, but the former said there’s no controversy. That includes the officiating.
“(Referee Jair Marrufo) let the players decide,” Schmetzer said. “He was consistent from the minute he blew the whistle to the end, and I appreciate that.”
An impetus to MLS tossing the traditional two-legged playoff format was to showcase the player talent in drama-filled matches. The design is also wedged between two FIFA windows to retain momentum.
Which actually means players like Roldan will have another tough stretch of games. Many Sounders players are leaving after Sunday’s championship for international duty. According to contingency planning, they’d miss the victory parade.
“Pump the brakes, pump the brakes, pump the brakes,” Schmetzer said. “We have a game to play.”