TUKWILA, Wash. (AP) — In the immediate aftermath of winning their first MLS Cup title a year ago, the Seattle Sounders started to plan long term.
After playing all the way into December, the Sounders knew the challenge of trying to make it back to the playoffs in 2017, let alone contend for another title, with a short, limited offseason. They also had evidence of how tough it was as the 2015 finalists — Portland and Columbus — both missed the playoffs in 2016.
The Sounders stuck to their plan early in the season even if it meant resting players and possibly giving away some early matches. But those decisions, combined with some key additions during the summer transfer window, have helped put Seattle back in the MLS Cup final against Toronto with a chance to do what few teams in league history have accomplished: repeat as champions.
"We know for reigning champions it's extremely difficult to reach the playoffs again, let alone repeat," goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. "For us to have a chance to do that is massive."
A win on Saturday would raise Seattle to another level in North American soccer. They're already highly regarded for their fan support and one of the most successful expansion launches in pro sports. They've won multiple U.S. Open Cup titles and last year added the desired star to their crest with their first league championship.
But a victory over Toronto would make Seattle just the fourth team in league history to repeat. D.C. United won the first two titles in league history. Houston won consecutive titles in 2006-07 and Los Angeles went back-to-back in 2011-12.
"I think we're at the point now where we're starting to get in that elite level of clubs in MLS. I think the league and people from the outside are starting to notice that since (2009) we've reached the playoffs every time, we've consistently grabbed trophies, we've consistently found ourselves competing for trophies," Frei said. "And even though we may be a young team compared to some of the original ones we're starting to fill the cabinet with trophies. I think being able to achieve something like the L.A. Galaxy did winning back-to-back would definitely cement us in that elite class."
Repeating has been a rarity in the league's 22 seasons. The back-to-back titles by Los Angeles earlier this decade may be the most impressive because they came at a time when the league was expanding rapidly and there was more parity in the league.
That's why Seattle and Toronto making it back to the final for the second straight year is such a notable accomplishment. Between league play, domestic competitions, international call-ups and a variety of other obstacles, both have enough depth and talent to stand out.
"There are a lot of teams that are even because of the way the league is set up, salary cap situations for teams. I just feel like there are a lot of teams that are pretty close to each other," Seattle forward Clint Dempsey said. "It's not like there is one team that has an opportunity to really go and get a ton of players and have a huge salary cap to try and push themselves away from everybody else like you see in the other leagues. It's a good league, we have a great team and I think the organization has done a great job of providing depth for this team but also an attractive style of soccer for the fans to watch."
There's also Seattle's sports history. Both the Seattle Seahawks and Seattle SuperSonics played in consecutive championships, yet neither was able to pull off two straight titles. The Sonics lost to the Washington Bullets in 1978, but beat them in 1979. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2014 and were on the verge of winning the following season before a famous late interception against New England cost Seattle a second straight title.
"We're living in a really cool moment because what happened last year is special and what is happening this year is special," coach Brian Schmetzer said. "We still have one more game to go. We're going to do our best to put out a good performance and we'll see which team wins."
NOTES: The Sounders have ruled out midfielder Osvaldo Alonso for Saturday's final. Alonso has been bothered by a quadriceps injury and has played in just one game since September. Alonso was a key in last year's final, harassing Toronto star Sebastian Giovinco and helping Seattle keep Toronto scoreless through regulation and extra time.