by Alex Langer
On December 10, Seattle Sounders FC won the MLS Cup for the first time in club history. In what can charitably be called a defensive struggle, Seattle triumphed over Toronto FC in penalties, winning a 0-0 (5-4) victory. It was Seattle’s first MLS Cup in the eight years it has been an MLS team, and most fans in Seattle are calling it long-awaited; a testament to the talent that has passed through Seattle in its short time as an MLS franchise. The Sounders fans are some of the loudest and biggest in MLS, and surely welcomed their team home to a hero’s ovation. Despite the flukey nature of their victory, they won fair and square. Their victory, however was a great example of a type of soccer match that I love to watch: the “hold the line” game.
Over the course of one hundred and twenty regular and overtime minutes, Seattle didn’t register a single shot directed at goal. Not one shot, of the three (three!) that Seattle took forced the Toronto goalkeeper to attempt a save. In MLS this season, teams averaged about four shots on goal a game. Seattle averaged four and a half. No team has ever won a championship in MLS without successfully challenging the keeper. Toronto edged Seattle in possession, 54%-46%. They attempted nineteen shots, with seven shots on goal, well above average. Yet at the end of one hundred and twenty minutes, the score stood 0-0. Soccer, more than perhaps any other sport, gets a bad reputation for ties and boredom. The tie, and the scoreless tie at that, is bandied around by the sport’s detractors as evidence of its boredom. These detractors aren’t entirely wrong. There are boring ties. One only has to watch any Manchester United match from last year to find evidence of what is possible when teams are content to hold possession in their own side of the field. However, ask any fan in the stadium in Toronto, or watching at home, whether they were bored by the scoreline. I bet not one would answer in the affirmative.
The 2016 MLS Cup is an example of one of the many permutations of a soccer tie that can exist: the “hold the line” game. Others include the “snooze-fest game,” the “comedy of errors game,” in which both teams are so inept that scoring seems out of the question, and my personal favorite, the “heavyweight match,” when two powerhouses land haymakers for 120 minutes but neither can finish the other off. Perhaps the greatest examples of the “heavyweight match” were the 2006 World Cup semi-final and final. In the semi-final, Germany and Italy were tied 0-0 in the 117th minute, before a gorgeous goal by fullback Fabio Grosso gave the Italians the lead, and a goal from their talisman, Alessandro Del Piero in the 120th minute sent the Italians to Berlin. In that game, both goalkeepers were forced into miraculous save after miraculous save, with Italian Gigi Buffon, at the time the most expensive keeper in the world, coming out the victor. The final against France was made famous by the head-butt heard ‘round the world, (when French legend Zinedine Zidane, playing in his last game ever, head butted Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the chest in extra time, earning a red card). In that game, an early penalty to France and a late Italian equalizer left the game level at the end of one hundred and twenty minutes, after which Italy triumphed on penalties. That game featured some of the greatest attacking and defending players in the world, and the consensus two best keepers in the world, for one hundred and twenty minutes.
This MLS Cup looked far more like the World Cup Final than the semi-final. It was a game for keepers, a game for defenders. Seattle’s attackers, Jordan Morris and Nicolas Ladiero, both had poor starts and poor all-around games, failing to link up with passes in the attacking third of the pitch, anywhere close to the penalty box. By halftime it was clear that Seattle was not going to win by dominating attack. Instead, they withstood shot after shot after shot from Toronto’s attacking players, culminating in one of the great saves in MLS history: a last chance punch out of a Josey Altidore header. After one hundred twenty minutes, Seattle and Toronto met for PKs, Seattle’s keeper guessed wrong one less time than Toronto’s, and the Sounders were MLS champions.
When neutral fans look back on this game, they will probably remember Stefan Frei’s miraculous save at the end of extra time, or the trivia that Seattle is the only team to win the MLS Cup without a shot on goal. That’s fine. What I will remember it for is it being one of the only “hold the line” games in which the defending team came out on top. For one hundred and twenty minutes, Toronto pressed the Seattle side to the limits, with little to fear from being aggressive. In these sorts of games, eventually the line breaks. Recall the United States’ loss to Belgium in the 2014 World Cup, when Tim Howard earned the nickname “Secretary of Defense.” Howard faced an insane 27 shots on goal, and made sixteen saves. Across the leagues and internationally, four shots on goal is about average, and letting one of those four go by is considered good goalkeeping. Twenty seven shots came at Howard. Eighteen of them got past the defenders. He saved sixteen of the eighteen. It was one of the greatest examples of keeping in history. Eventually, however, the dam broke and Belgium put two in the net. In that game, Belgium had to ward off fifteen American shots, nine of them on goal. In the MLS Cup final, Toronto’s keeper never touched the ball. Not once.
It wasn't the prettiest of games. It reminded the viewer that the talent level in the MLS needs improvement. I can only imagine what it must have been like for a Toronto fan. There might be nothing more stressful than seeing your soccer team dominate the game in every way but the one that counts-ability to find the net. A dominant pitching performance combined with an anemic offense supporting it might be the best baseball comparison (Seattle fans, and Felix Hernandez, know that feeling well). For soccer fans that love a beautiful game, one that features wide-open, fast-paced play, this was not the final for you. It is one of the many ways a tie can lead to a great game, a game in which the backbreaking goal felt like it was coming for all of extra time, only for Frei to find one last moment of heroics to keep it level. Seattle held the line, forced penalties, and escaped with an unlikely, potentially flukey, championship. Not that the way they did it matters to a single fan in blue and green.
 In the summer of 2001, Buffon left Parma for the Italian giant Juventus for a then-record 53 million euro, becoming Juventus’ most expensive purchase and the most expensive keeper transfer through 2006.