The Seattle Sounders have had more stylish teams and certainly more dangerous teams than the 2016 edition of the squad. What the Sounders never had before this season was a more cohesive team, or a team so clearly unified in the singular belief that it can win every game it plays.
Just four months after hitting rock bottom and falling to 6-12-2 after an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City — and subsequently firing the only coach they ever had in MLS — the Sounders are on their way to the club's first MLS Cup final. They have made it there by beating the two teams with the best records in MLS during the regular season, and did so with star forward Clint Dempsey sidelined by a heart condition since August.
Sunday's triumph over the Colorado Rapids was a fitting final step from basement to championship final. The Sounders went into Colorado knowing that no visiting team in the league had won a match at Dick's Sporting Goods Park this season, but that never worried a Seattle side that had battled through worse in the past four months.
The Sounders had been through the firing of Sigi Schmid, and then the loss of Clint Dempsey for the year. Through it all, new head coach Brian Schmetzer kept his team focused and, most importantly, made them believe the 2016 season could still produce something special.
Nelson Valdez was one of those players Schmetzer convinced. Valdez could have easily given up on this year, having endured what had to be one of the worst seasons of his career. All Valdez has done is turn into a star in the playoffs, finally looking like the player Seattle thought it was getting when he signed. It was fitting that Valdez delivered the tide-turning assist to Jordan Morris on Sunday's lone goal. Where some coaches might have long since given up on Valdez, Schmetzer instead helped him regain his confidence at the most crucial time.
Valdez is just one of many examples of Sounders players riding waves of confidence through Seattle's surge to the final. Players like Morris and Cristian Roldan, who have blossomed this year, and veterans like Roman Torres and Osvaldo Alonso, who have helped form the rock-sold backbone every championship team needs. Any list of key Sounders players must include Nicolas Lodeiro, who has been supremely instrumental in the team's turnaround, but it can't be understated just how important Schmetzer has been to Seattle's transformation from a team in shambles to one overflowing with confidence.
Seattle needed every bit of that confidence Sunday, when the Rapids started out playing very well and the Sounders could have easily caved as they stuck to their game plan, which was to try and frustrate the Rapids attack. A sloppy first half threatened to undo the Sounders, but Colorado never showed a killer instinct, and did nothing with their first-half supremacy.
The second half saw the Rapids fade and the Sounders grow stronger. A trademark of Schmetzer's four months in charge has been the almost automatic halftime improvements Seattle tends to make, and Sunday was no different. The Sounders defense stayed organized and avoided the kind of mistakes teams have been known to make when playing at altitude. Fatigue didn't bother Seattle, and that resoluteness left the Rapids with no answers on how to break down this suddenly stingy Sounders defense.
Who better to provide the series-clinching dagger than Morris, the rookie forward who started 2016 considering his European options but who will close out the year playing for an MLS Cup title with his hometown team? Battling a flu that had him bed-ridden for days, Morris shook off the illness and delivered a performance that drew at least some similarity to Michael Jordan's famous flu game in the 1997 NBA finals. In that iconic performance, Jordan overcame a serious stomach virus to score 38 points in a victory that helped the Bulls go on to win a championship.
Morris didn't dominate like Jordan did that day, but his work Sunday can't be understated. His consistent pressuring of Colorado's defense, coupled with his defensive work, played a key role in helping the Sounders keep the Rapids at bay, and Morris' second goal of the series helped give the Sounders the breathing room they needed to close out the victory comfortably.
Now the Sounders, a team that looked completely out of the playoff picture as recently as July, head toward the 2016 MLS Cup final knowing they are a win away from adding a new trophy to a collection that already includes four U.S. Open Cup trophies and a Supporters' Shield during their MLS era. As impressive as that collection already is, none of those past triumphs will be a match for what this Sounders team is currently doing, especially if they cap this improbable run with a championship.