There is more than one way to reach the top, and 2016 was a glorious example of just that. Within a span of seven December days, Western Washington and Seattle Sounders FC won championships in distinctly different fashion.
Culminating a season-long march, Western confirmed its No. 1 billing by ending the reign of a three-time champion. Conversely, for much of the season the Sounders scarcely considered to have postseason potential, let alone become a championship contender.
Seattle's quest for its first MLS Cup was not without its casualties. Sigi Schmid, who had guided the franchise from its infancy to seven straight playoff appearances, not to mention five major trophies, was removed as head coach after 20 games. The Sounders had slumped six games below .500 for the first time and stood ninth out of 10 teams in the West.
Replacing Schmid, initially on an interim basis, was his top assistant, Brian Schmetzer. In the USL era, Schmetzer's Sounders won two championships. Still, it would be a huge task to reach the postseason.
Coinciding with Schmetzer's ascension was the arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro, an inventive and industrious export from Boca Juniors and Uruguayan international. Lodeiro proved to the a catalytic ingredient in midfield, scoring four times and assisting on eight goals in the final 13 matches. His connection to Clint Dempsey was prosperous but unfortunately short-lived. Dempsey, after a hat trick at Orlando and brace versus Portland, experienced an irregular heartbeat and pulled from the lineup with 10 games to go.
Shouldering the offensive load down the stretch would be veteran Paraguayan Nelson Valdez and homegrown rookie sensation Jordan Morris. During four straight wins Morris scored three goals, including two during a vital road victory at L.A. that put Seattle squarely in the playoff race.
After clinching a postseason berth on the final day of the regular season Valdez and Lodeiro figured prominently in wins over Kansas City and Supporters' Shield winner FC Dallas. In the Western Conference finals versus No. 2 overall seed Colorado, Morris struck twice in the 3-1 aggregate series.
Finally, in the MLS Cup Final, played in sub-freezing temperatures against a red-hot, high-powered Toronto FC, defense won the day. Stefan Frei stopped all seven shots on frame, most notably an outstretched leaping save off Jozy Altidore in extra time. Frei saved another try during the penalty phase and centerback Roman Torres struck the decisive blow to earn the trophy (0-0, 5-4). Under Schmetzer and facing seemingly a slew of must-win matches, the Sounders won 12 and drew five of their final 20 games, including postseason.
“They’ve been resilient for a very long time,” Schmetzer said of his team. “But I think at the beginning of this year, when we started off in preseason, we knew we had a good team, a veteran team. The reasons for the slow start we can pick apart. But I think the base was always there. They found a way to win and persevere in tough situations.”
A week earlier in Kansas City, the Western Washington women applied the finishing touches to a near-perfect masterpiece. Following a one-goal, losing decision in the 2015 national final, the Vikings had spent 12 months focused on getting back to that point–and then reaching the summit.
After an opening day draw, Western won out the rest of the way. Twenty-four consecutive victories, 16 of them by multiple goals, 16 by shutout. By mid-October, the Vikings earned the No. 1 ranking in NCAA Division II. They would not relinquish it.
Once in the NCAA tournament, rather than become conservative they were explosive, scoring 15 goals via 10 different players. In their long-awaited rematch with Michigan's Grand Valley State, Western struck from long-range three times – two from Caitlyn Jobanek and the 76th-minute winner from Emily Webster – to oust the Lakers from their D2 throne, 3-2.
"They have so much belief in themselves and the person next to them, and it showed up many times this season," coach Travis Connell said. "That's inside, that's who you are as a person and that's what showed up. The players just said, `we're going to go and win this thing no matter what gets in our way.'"
Western completed its quest by winning 24 straight following an opening day draw. The Vikings joined Seattle Pacific as the only two NCAA women's championship programs in the state. Pacific Lutheran won three NAIA crowns.