Sounders stun LAFC, advance to third MLS Cup in four years

Raul Ruidiaz and the Seattle Sounders stunned LAFC at Banc of California Stadium in the Western Conference final. (Getty Images)
Raul Ruidiaz and the Seattle Sounders stunned LAFC at Banc of California Stadium in the Western Conference final. (Getty Images)

LAFC’s magical season won’t get its fairytale finish. The Seattle Sounders stunned the record-setting MLS regular season champions with a 3-1 win at Banc of California Stadium on Tuesday, eliminating LAFC and advancing to a third MLS Cup in four years, with the winner of Wednesday’s east final between holders Atlanta United and 2017 champ Toronto FC awaiting Nov. 10.

Raul Ruidiaz was the difference-maker for the Sounders. The Peruvian World Cup veteran changed the complexion of the contest when he scored Seattle’s equalizer just five minutes after Eduard Atuesta’s free kick put the hosts ahead. His brilliant hold-up play set up Nicolas Lodeiro’s go-ahead goal before the first half was out, and Ruidiaz then added the victory-clinching third goal with just under a half-hour left to play.

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Here are three quick thoughts on the match.

Seattle’s experience pays off

MLS Cup seemed like LAFC’s to lose after Carlos Vela and his team sashayed past city rival LA Galaxy and unstoppable front man Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the first time in six tries last week. But as LAFC coach Bob Bradley noted in the days leading up to Tuesday’s game, Seattle was a better team than the Galaxy during the regular season.

Coming off a rousing win of their own against Real Salt Lake, the Sounders came to play. After reaching the league finale in 2016 and 2017, winning it all the first time around, Atuesta’s pinpoint early strike came against the run of play and actually seemed to embolden the visitors:

Ruidiaz had already been everywhere by that point, and he was not to be denied. Seattle’s equalizer arrived after a brilliant solo effort by the South American striker:

The goal all but silenced the home crowd, and with LAFC fans still wondering what happened Seattle struck again.

The Sounders took advantage of some lax defending by the hosts, who allowed Ruidiaz to dance through the midfield before the ball ended up on the right foot of an unmarked Lodeiro, who sent what wound up as the winner past Tyler Miller:

There was more than enough time for LAFC to get back into the match at that point. But as good as the Black and Gold were all year, this was just their third playoff match in club history.

Seattle, on the other hand, has been around the block in recent years. They remained the better team in the second half. And when Ruidiaz provided a two-goal cushion in the 64th minute, it was all but over:

LAFC squanders a huge opportunity

Say what you want about the all-time best 72 points. The record goal difference. The Shield. None of it matters in MLS, a league where the Cup and only the Cup is king. A change in the playoff format meant that LAFC needed to win just three do-or-die games to cement its legacy as the greatest side in the domestic league’s 24 seasons. It managed one, a memorable victory over a Galaxy side that had proven unbeatable over the the first five meetings.

But the cold hard truth is that nobody will remember how good LAFC was this season, because they fell flat when it mattered most. That’s just how the postseason goes in MLS. Just ask the New York Red Bulls. Or did you forget that they set the points record in 2018 before being bounced prior to the championship match?

A marquee MLS Cup awaits regardless

It’s hard to bet against Atlanta prevailing on the other side of the bracket, but if any team can duplicate Seattle’s upset it’s the Reds. TFC has accumulated all sorts of invaluable experience in knockout games despite failing to reach the postseason last year. They’ve won multiple playoff series and CONCACAF Champions League ties and won’t be at all fazed by what’s in store for them in Georgia Wednesday night.

If the underdogs prevail, it would set up a rematch of the 2016 and 2017 finals, this time in Seattle in front of 67,000 fans. If not, Seattle will travel to Atlanta, where another sold-out NFL venue awaits for MLS Cup. As much as neutrals may have wanted to see LAFC write its fairytale, that’s a pretty spectacular consolation prize.

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