Sounders win fourth USL-1 title
(Tukwila, Washington) - A drizzly night did not dampen the celebration for host Seattle Sounders, as they dominated in a 4-0 victory over Atlanta Silverbacks in the USL First Division championship final on Saturday night with two goals from substitute Greg Howes and several great saves from goalkeeper Chris Eylander. The Sounders now have the most titles in USL-1 history with four.
Seattle used two long-range tries, one directly off the kickoff and one that was put out by Atlanta goalkeeper Ryan McIntosh, to keep the Silverbacks honest early. But Atlanta rarely looked bothered.
In the 18th minute, the Sounders’ title hopes took a blow. Their midfield engine, Leighton O’Brien, went down with an assumed groin injury and the former league MVP was subbed out in favor of veteran Howes. Following the injury, Seattle took off. First a cross from Hugo Alcaraz-Cuellar, placed just beyond the reach of a Silverback defender, found Josh Gardner with time at the back post. He had options and chose to play a driven ball across the area, leaving McIntosh helpless. But charging right fullback Kevin Sakuda could not control the cross and put the ball just wide.
Seconds later, a Sounders corner found the gifted feet of USL-1 MVP Sebastien Le Toux. He was in heavy traffic, but managed to poke a sharp grounder at McIntosh. Seeing the ball at the last second McIntosh excelled himself again, a reflex save to his left to keep the match scoreless.
With McIntosh under siege, it was only a matter of when Seattle would find the back of the net. But just then, Atlanta proved this championship match would not end as a one-sided affair. They turned the table on the Sounders when they found Warren Ukah, a tall target forward, in the area with his back to goal.
Ukah took a pass from Silverbacks captain Rodrigo Rios and flicked the ball high enough to get a bicycle-kick try on Eylander’s goal. The no-look shot had the Sounders number one sprawling backward to push the ball just over the crossbar. The save kept the match level through the 35th minute.
The bicycle attempt seemed to be the pinnacle of the Silverbacks attack and the tide shifted once again to the Sounders.
In the 45th minute, the Sounders struck first, saving face after having eight first-half shots on goal and coming away empty handed, their ninth found the back of the net.
Howes, who came on earlier for an injured O’Brien in the 18th minute, made the best of his time on the pitch when teammate Alcaraz-Cuellar picked him out in a pack of Silverbacks defenders. Howes had the pack by a step and McIntosh knew it. Charging off his line immediately, McIntosh was in perfect position to take away a sure goal when Howes calmly nicked a ball to the back post just out of the goalkeeper’s reach. The match headed into halftime at 1-0 to Seattle.
As expected, the Silverbacks came out in the second frame looking for an equalizer.
In barely the 46th minute, Atlanta’s Ukah was at it again. He touched a ball played into his feet around a defender and an on-charging Eylander. It looked on net but everyone in the crowd prayed it wide, as the loose ball inched past the far post.
Ten minutes later, the Silverbacks were still after the equalizer. Atlanta earned three consecutive corners and their second try was the best. A ball driven over the six-yard box found the head of Omar Jarun. His textbook header pounded the ground in front of Eylander before bouncing directly at the goalkeeper’s head. He saved a goal and his face by pushing the ball over the crossbar.
Searching for an equalizer can often lead to a team over-extending themselves and that was just the case in the 61st minute. Playing defense for the first time in the second half, the Silverbacks defense failed to corral Taylor Graham, who was moving forward from his leftback position.
Graham continued to move uncontested up the left flank of the pitch before passing to a wide open Alcaraz-Cuellar, five yards outside of the box. Alcaraz-Cuellar, who is a perennial league leader in assists and had been sending in dangerous crosses all match, turned his aim on net, added roughly 30 mph and rocketed a shot past a sprawling McIntosh just inside the post for the 2-0 lead.
Atlanta refused to back off and pressured the Sounders, who by now were playing full-on team defense. They managed another high shot in the 67th at Eylander. He was again equal to it and pushed it over the bar, reminiscent of his first save of the night – this would not be his last. Atlanta fought on, nipping the crossbar with the ensuing corner kick.
A series of substitutions slowed the pace a bit before Alcaraz-Cuellar nearly set up another goal nine minutes from time when he received a ball from Rookie of the Year finalist Kenji Treschuk and sent a cross in from the edge of the 18 to Le Toux. The Frenchman’s header from close range nearly got past McIntosh, who knocked it wide.
McIntosh’s save only delayed the inevitable, however, as Howes, who was on the wrong side of the championship last year after his Rochester Raging Rhinos fell at home 3-0 to Vancouver Whitecaps, blasted a 20-yard shot that deflected off defender Matt Bobo and left McIntosh going the wrong direction, as it struck the back of the net. Howes would be honored as the championship game MVP.
Up 3-0 with eight minutes left, it looked good that the Sounders would claim sole possession of being the league’s all-time best team with a fourth title, surpassing fellow three-time champion Rochester, who missed out on a fourth last year after Seattle had pulled level with their third in 2005.
Atlanta had a chance to spoil Eylander’s shutout in the 87th when Angel Rivillo sped past the Sounders defense, but his shot from a tough angle toward the far post was knocked wide yet again by the outstanding goalkeeper.
A minute later, Seattle put nine-year veteran Craig Tomlinson in the match for Le Toux and the striker just two days before his 35th birthday netted a stoppage-time goal in what may be the last match of his career. A corner put on goal by Roger Levesque was stopped by McIntosh, but the rebound fell out to Tomlinson, who put it away from four yards out to cap the victory.
The Number Four
The four-goal win was equal to the largest margin of victory in the history of the league, matching the four-goal decision by Seattle Storm, no affiliation to the Sounders, in a 5-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes in the 1988 Western Soccer League championship, the first USL-1 title for the city of Seattle…The victory gave Seattle its fourth USL First Division championship. The game was their third appearance in the final in the last four years…Alcaraz-Cuellar’s goal was his fourth of the season (second of the playoffs)…Sebastien Le Toux is the fourth player in Sounders history to win the USL-1 MVP honor.
Seattle Sounders midfielder Greg Howes
“Kevin (Sakuda) got the ball out wide up to Hugo and he played a good ball into me. I was able to knock it down and find the back of the net. It was a huge goal going into half up 1-0. It really changed the game because they had to come out in the second half and attack.
“Unfortunately for Leighton, he’s our leader out here, he’s been a leader for years here. He pulled his groin and I got in there and was able to get a good finish and send us into halftime. The second half was fun, the last 10 minutes was a party out here up 3-0. I was on the losing end last year. I wouldn’t trade this for anything. To get into the finals isn’t easy, two in a row back-to-back and to be here with my family and my friends and this is my hometown and to be able to bring a championship here to Seattle, there’s no feeling like it.”
Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer
“Our objective in the second half was to come out and not give anything away. That was the obvious way to go. If we get the clean sheet we win, but Atlanta made things very difficult on us in the first 15 minutes of the second half. They put us under pressure and forced Eylander to make some tough saves. The dagger was Hugo’s goal. After that, I knew we had them.
“(Howes) is a veteran guy in this league, he’s won championships indoors. He saw an opportunity and went forward from a midfield position to score that goal and that’s great.
“(Eylander) should be championship series MVP. We witnessed it tonight. We witnessed it down in Puerto Rico. He’s great.”
Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Chris Eylander
“He hit a real nice volley (forcing my first save). I had to take a sharp step back and lay out. I was just able to get a hand to it and push it over the bar.
“In the second half, most of the saves I had to make were obscured or from tight angles. Atlanta made a really strong push in the second half, but it would have taken something really great to beat me from those close angles.”
Atlanta Silverbacks head coach Jason Smith
“Coming into the second half down one-nil, we had to go for it. After they got the first goal in the second half, I figured the scoreline would not matter much. You lose two nothing or four nothing, they both count as a loss, so I put the guys in who could score goals and we tried to go forward.
“In my mind, Chris Eylander was the man of the match,” added Smith. “He made two or three great saves that I thought were sure goals.”