Earthquakes

Seattle wins MLS Cup, beating Toronto on penalty kicks

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USATSI

Seattle wins MLS Cup, beating Toronto on penalty kicks

TORONTO -- As homecomings go, the MLS Cup final is going to be hard to beat for Seattle's Stefan Frei.

Frei made critical saves in regulation and then again in the penalty-kick shootout to help the Sounders win their first championship with a 5-4 victory in the tiebreaker against Toronto FC on Saturday night.

The Swiss goalkeeper, who was drafted by Toronto in 2009 and spent five seasons with the club until he was traded in 2013, earned the game's MVP honors.

"This is what you want to be a part of," he said. "We've made Sounders history and for me it could have happened anywhere, I don't care as long as I'm with my team and my teammates."

Roman Torres scored in the sixth round of penalty kicks to clinch the trophy after 120 scoreless minutes. It was the first MLS Cup final to fail to produce a goal in regulation, setting the stage for a dramatic tiebreaker.

While Toronto's Michael Bradley and Alvaro Fernandez for Seattle had both seen their shots saved, the game went to sudden-death spot kicks. Toronto's Justin Morrow could only clatter his shot off the crossbar, setting the stage for Torres to win it with a high shot down the middle of the goal.

"You need a little bit of luck," Frei said. "Let's face it, PKs are not the prettiest thing to decide a game, and actually Roman missed a penalty in training yesterday. I'm glad he missed yesterday and not today."

Seattle became the first team in MLS Cup final history to fail to produce a shot on target throughout the game. Additionally, the Sounders' three shots overall were the fewest in an MLS title game, the first to feature two expansion franchises. Toronto was the first Canadian MLS Cup finalist.

That meant little to Bradley, who was understandably dejected after seeing his team become just the second to lose at home since MLS switched from having the final at a neutral location to the home stadium of the finalist with the most regular-season points in 2012. The Portland Timbers became the first when they won the championship in Columbus against the Crew last year.

"Every guy gave everything they had, every guy walked off the field having pored their hearts into the game and we didn't get rewarded tonight," Bradley said. "That's sports, that's life."

With the game on the line, Toronto coach Greg Vanney removed former MLS most valuable player Sebastian Giovinco in the 103rd minute in favor of Tosaint Ricketts. While Vanney said that an exhausted Giovinco "couldn't move," after the game, the gutsy call almost paid off.

Following Ricketts' cross five minutes after coming on, it looked as if Jozy Altidore was going to give Toronto the lead in the 108th minute with a looping header, but an athletic save from Frei kept it scoreless. Leaping to his left, he scooped the ball off the line with his left hand, allowing his defense to clear the ball to safety.

"Obviously Frei makes a couple big saves that keep them in it," Vanney said. "But congratulations to them."

For Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer, who took over from Sigi Schmid on July 26 with Seattle in ninth place in the Western Conference, the turnaround was complete. Posting an 8-2-4 record since then, Seattle became the first team in MLS history to make the playoffs after having 20 or fewer points through the season's first 20 matches.

"Some people say defense wins championships," he said. "You couple Roman's performance with Stefan Frei, who came up massive with that one save and then in the penalty-kick shootout made the save that he needed to make."

ONE COLD NIGHT

The temperature at kickoff was 28 degrees, making it the second-coldest MLS Cup on record. That honor goes to the 2013 edition at Sporting Park in Kansas City, where the game kicked off at 22 degrees.

ONE HOT TICKET

While the remaining tickets for Saturday's final sold out in three minutes after going on sale to the general public last Monday, there were still 90 or so tickets available on StubHub 10 minutes prior to kickoff. Prices ranged from $147 up to $2,500 for a ticket that retailed between $55 and $555 at face value.

THE POWER OF CHANGE

Schmetzer became the first coach in MLS history to take charge of a team midway through the season and lead it to a championship. Schmid (Los Angeles Galaxy) and Steve Nicol (New England Revolution) took their teams to the title match, but both came up short.

THE PRICE IS RIGHT

"I hope we get to do this every year; it's pretty fun. If we don't win the championship every year I hope everyone has to go through us to get to the championship every year and when they get here they're bloody and bruised and can barely play." — Seattle Sounders part-owner, and host of the Price is Right, Drew Carey, in the locker room after the game.

A heartfelt thank you to former Quakes defender Victor Bernardez

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A heartfelt thank you to former Quakes defender Victor Bernardez

This week, the San Jose Earthquakes announced they would not be bringing back Victor Bernardez next year. 

For most people, this news barely registered on their radar, if at all.  For me, it is the end of the line for one of my favorite players, on my favorite team.

Who was Victor Bernardez?  He was an attacking central defender for the Quakes.  When he played, he constantly made you wonder if he was being overly aggressive, or out of control.  My heart would skip a beat when he would dive in on a tackle, and more often than not, he would come away having made an amazing play.

The first thing that stands out physically about Victor is his strength.  He’s like a bull or an angry rhinoceros -- he played fearlessly and with passion.  I constantly underestimated his offensive abilities.  I can’t count how many times it would look like he was just kicking the ball wildly to clear it, and it was actually a long pass in a perfect place for a counter attack to start.  Through some of the lean years, Victor’s long balls started many of the team's best offensive chances.

He was a relentless player who provided me some of my happiest moments as a fan.  I can clearly remember how despondent I was and how happy I ended up being at the 2012 California Classico at Stanford Stadium.  I had organized a trip for my kid’s soccer club and had over 200 people in our group.  For many, it was their first time to an Earthquakes game.  I wanted them to love the Quakes as much as I did.  Steven Lenhart scored an early goal (and did some pull ups on the goal). Then David Beckham scored, Jason Hernandez scored an own goal, and Landon Donovan put Galaxy up 3-1 in the 41st minute after a misplay by the Quakes defense. 

We were sitting in the end zone, pretty close to the Galaxy supporters group, and I was dreading things would get worse for my boys in the black and blue.  Then, in the 44th minute, Big Vic scored his first MLS goal on a swinging redirect off a Marvin Chavez corner kick, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve seen before or since.  It changed the whole outlook of the match.  Chris Wondolowski capped off the comeback with his unforgettable whirling, back-to-the-goal finish for the game winner.

I won’t forget the free-kick goal Victor scored that same year against Chivas where he took about 14 steps before he shot the ball around a 3-man wall and into the corner of the goal.  Nor will I forget the same approach he took when an opponent try to discourage him from a restart after a foul and stood about 3 yards from the ball.  Instead of asking the referee for 10 yards, he ran up and drilled the guy with the ball.  It deflected out of play for a throw-in and Victor had made his point. I don’t remember an opponent ever taking that same tact with him around.

Victor was listed as six-foot-two, but I was fortunate enough to share an elevator with him once.  I’m 5’10” and all I can think is that they measured him while wearing his longest studs on his cleats.  The truth is, while on the field, he played like he was six-foot-two -- and with the ferocity of lion. 

It was pretty clear this season that the club did not have plans for a 36-year-old center to come back in 2018.  In the middle portion of the season, other players found themselves where Victor had been a constant for years on the back line.  One of the things I am most grateful for is that Victor got a chance to be an impactful player on the run to the playoffs.  His passion for the club, and the game, shone bright.  His aggressive play in the September 30th must-win 2-1 victory over Portland showed the team how it needed to play if it was going to make the playoffs.  In spite of having trouble keeping up with speedster attackers, he was able to shore up a defense that ended the season -21 in goal differential, and get them into the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

There are other ways Victor has impacted my life.  He made me care about the country of Honduras, and how their national team is doing.  I openly cheered for a man nicknamed “Muma”.  I have no idea what it means, but it just sounds cool and makes me feel closer to him, even though our paths have rarely crossed.  He showed me how to be ready for when my number is called after feeling left out for a while.  He exemplified so many of the great things about the game and were a part of my growing love for the sport.  Most importantly, he showed me what can happen if a person puts their heart and soul into their craft, and complements it with humility, humor, and love.

Victor, I wish you well in whatever lies ahead.  Thank you for all the wonderful memories you provided me and my family as we got to watch you ply your trade.

Joe Washington is the senior coordinating producer for NBC Sports Bay Area/California  -- and a lifelong Quakes fan 

Why Quakes' hiring of Stahre is surprising, but not shocking at the same time

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Why Quakes' hiring of Stahre is surprising, but not shocking at the same time

When the San Jose Earthquakes named Chris Leitch their head coach around the halfway point of last season, the biggest question wasn’t why, it was why not — as in, why not assign him the interim tag most people hired during the middle of a year get?

At the time, general manager Jesse Fioranelli's sans-interim approach was the GM saying that not only was the label not necessary and that Leitch was the in-house solution the Quakes needed to end a playoff drought going on five seasons but also that he was the right person to guide the team into a brighter future. 

And so that vote of confidence, coupled with Leitch guiding the Earthquakes to their first playoff appearance since 2012, plus the lack of an official announcement by the team that a coaching search was underway makes Friday’s hiring of Mikael Stahre a bit eye-popping and provides no clear-cut answer to what happened behind closed doors when the Quakes came back from Vancouver following a brutal exit from the postseason. 

Rumors began swirling midway through the week that Fioranelli had Stahre, the front man over at Sweden’s BK Hacken, in his sights. And there are those people who would argue the writing was on the wall for Leitch given the team’s inconsistent play — especially on the road. But were it not for some ambiguous, less-than-reassuring endorsements of Leitch following the 5-0 playoff loss that left the door open for just about anything, there are others who would say that Friday’s hiring of Stahre was completely out of left field. 

If anything, it appears Fioranelli, who Quakes fans knew very little about when he was hired as the GM back in January, is continuing a precedent that he’ll pull any trigger at any time. 

Whether Fioranelli’s decision to hire the Swedish head coach is the right thing to do is yet to be seen, obviously. Stahre built his name in Sweden, rising from the junior ranks to the front of a first team that last year jumped six spots in the standings. It’s one of many coaching statistics San Jose lists to try and assure fans they’re getting a true soccer mind for the job in Stahre. 

Fioranelli and team President Tom Fox are saying all the right things to welcome Stahre into the fold, mentioning his ability to relate to players — who reportedly gave Stahre glowing endorsements — as a key reason why he was ultimately chosen to lead the Quakes (read between the lines what you will there given the rumored-sour and still-unofficial departures of former Quakes mainstays Simon Dawkins, Cordell Cato and David Bingham once Leitch took over). 

Moreover, Fioranelli reiterated some of the points in the team’s press release during a conference call Friday afternoon. He mentioned that Leitch would stay on as the team’s technical director — the role he had before becoming the head coach and that the club’s decision to relieve him of the head coaching job had nothing to do with where the club was coming from (read: playoffs) but more so where they wanted to go moving forward (read: as of right now, unclear). Fioranelli said the search was extensive and that Stahre was one of three finalists for the job — including one from South America. He again pointed out that Stahre’s values align with those of the club and he’s a man his former players vouch for.

So, at least at first glance, San Jose is doing its best to make pretty and tie a bow around what was at-a-minimum an awkward firing of Dominic Kinnear and hiring of a man in Leitch who did just enough to justify the change but not enough to warrant extending Fioranelli’s experiment any longer. 

Only time will tell exactly what Fioranelli is creating over at Avaya Stadium.