Five years after he watched the Portland Timbers celebrate a MLS Cup victory on his team's home field, Minnesota United veteran midfielder Ethan Finlay experienced it all over again Monday night in Seattle.
The Sounders scored three last goals in 18 minutes — including the winner three minutes into stoppage time — and beat his Loons 3-2 in the Western Conference final.
"You've got to remember it," Finlay said afterward. "I sat on the field and watched Portland celebrate on my field when I was with Columbus in 2015 and I still remember it. I remember their faces. I remember their excitement and that fueled me and continues to fuel me."
Finlay expects his teammates, particularly younger ones, will remember such images as they enter an offseason of contemplation and what Finlay called "soul-searching."
Meanwhile, coach Adrian Heath promised progress for a franchise that he said will include roster-changing moves such as the summer ones that brought sudden star Emanuel Reynoso and starting defender Bakaye Dibassy.
The team has 2021 contract options on Finlay and 35-year-old Ozzie Alonso and must determine the futures for two-time MLS Defender of the Year Ike Opara, out injured since July, and young Designated Player Thomas Chacon. It also must find some clarity with a goalkeeping situation that has both Tyler Miller and Dayne St. Clair signed. And the Loons must re-sign (or try to re-sign) leading goal-scorer Kevin Molino and reach a transfer deal to bring back striker Luis Amarilla.
Heath afterward called them "big decisions" to make, starting in the "next 24, 36 hours."
"Sometimes you've got big decisions to make and they're not incredibly popular at time, but you have to believe they're the right decision," Heath said. "The most important thing is we're moving forward. We're getting better, each and every transfer window."
The Loons still haven't beaten Western rival Seattle in seven games since joining MLS in 2009. They are 0-6-1 and now have lost three of those games in stoppage time.
"This will be the last time this group of guys are together and for it to end the way it did tonight, in that fashion …," Finlay said, not completing his thought.
Getting close, but ...
Finlay's team overcame a pandemic season unlike any other to reach the MLS is Back tournament semifinal in Orlando last August and on Monday reached the Western Conference final for the first time.
Each time, they went no further.
Orlando City beat them in the tournament semifinal and Seattle's dizzying comeback beat them Monday.
On Monday, the Loons scored two goals that started off attacking midfielder star Emanuel Reynoso's left foot and led 2-0 into the 75th minute. Then second-half substitute Will Bruin scored a reactive goal two minutes after he entered the game, the first of those three Seattle goals in succession.
Two of them — including star striker Raul Ruidiaz's tying goal in the 89th minute and midfielder Gustav Svensson's header four minutes later — came off corner-kick set pieces.
Finlay saw it all from the sideline after he was subbed out of the game in the 69th minute, and he'll remember the Sounders' faces and excitement into their champagne-soaked locker room that Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer called a "mess but we'll clean it up."
Late game issues
Finlay was the only Loons player who spoke to media after Monday's game and he did so on the verge of tears at times.
"You go to work this offseason and when you get back, you remember the pain and you make sure you do everything you can to change that and to get back here," Finlay said. "I mean, nothing's promised. You can play many, many years and never get back here, let alone MLS Cup. It's my ninth year in the league and I've been in one MLS Cup. That's disappointing because I've been a part of some really good teams and that's what difficult."
Heath attributed that 2-0 lead lost to a team worn by such a trying season and disadvantaged by two fewer days' training after MLS rescheduled their Western semifinal to fit a national FOX broadcast slot. He lamented his team's lack of ball possession as the game progressed.
"It's not an excuse, but late on we were sort of running on empty a little bit," Heath said. "When you do that, you concede space ... We never really gave ourselves a little bit of rest."
Heath's major substitution move sent Kei Kamara for Finlay. Hassani Dotson replaced starting right back Romain Metanire in the first half after Metanire sustained what Heath suspected after the game might be a torn hamstring.
'A cruel game'
Seattle advanced to its fourth MLS Cup final in the last five seasons, thanks to such a dramatic comeback. The Sounders won it in 2016 and 2019.
"Football is a cruel game," Heath said. "We've all been on the receiving end at some stage and we've been on the side where it's you that gets the goals. They somehow always seem to find a way. It's in their DNA here. Congratulations to them."
Seattle advances to play Columbus in Saturday's MLS Cup. The Loons are due to return for preseason training by late January already, time to think about an opportunity that got away.
Midfielder Marlon Hairston Tuesday on Twitter wrote "still in shock from last night. Can't believe we let that one get away from us." He also praised his team for overcoming adversity and exceeding expectations.
"Guys will look back on their career and hopefully they don't regret it," Finlay said. "It could be for some guys the last time they get this far in their career. That's the tough part about this whole situation. It's small margins."