Clint Dempsey

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MLS Cup preview: Revenge for Toronto? Repeat for Seattle?

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After another grueling regular season and two-year-month postseason, the 2017 MLS season will end just as it predecessor, the 2016 campaign, did: with Toronto FC hosting the Seattle Sounders at BMO Field.

[ MORE: USMNT to serve as France’s final pre-2018World Cup foe ]

Saturday’s MLS Cup final (4 p.m. ET) features two sides which were widely considered the “best” in their respective conferences on the whole of a 34-game regular season and ensuing playoffs run. As it’s a rematch of last year’s final, two very distinct narratives have prevailed: will it be a final for revenge, or a repeat?

Road to revenge

Squad

For TFC, the quest to reach — and ultimately, host — back-to-back MLS Cup finals began with keeping together the core of the most expensive team in MLS history, and then adding another Best XI-caliber star to the bunch. That’s the $18.5-million trio of Sebastian Giovinco ($7.1 million per year), Michael Bradley ($6.5 million) and Jozy Altidore ($4.9), before adding Victor Vazquez (8 goals, 16 assists — a goal or assist ever 99.25 minutes he played this year), a silky smooth no. 10 who opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the Reds this season, for the bargain steal highway-robbery price of $700,000.

Season

If you’re looking for a story of adversity and perseverance en route to proving an entire world full of naysayers wrong, please immediately begin looking elsewhere. Far and away the worst stretch of TFC’s 2017 season came from the outset: just one win from their first five games, but an unbeaten start nonetheless. Game no. 6 saw TFC lose for the first time this year, but was quickly followed by six straight wins and not another defeat until June had begun.

The Gold Cup cost them a handful of points, as Bradley and Altidore were with the U.S. national team, both in mind and body for much of the early summer. An 11-game unbeaten run from early July to mid-September solidified their place as the Supporters’ Shield winners-elect, and put them in a position to set a new regular-season points record, which they did on the final of the season.

The playoff run

Playing at home, or going on the road — none of it made much difference to TFC in the regular season (though, they lost just once at BMO Field). A 2-1 win away to the New York Red Bulls all but secured progression into the Eastern Conference finals, which they pushed to the limits with a 1-0 defeat in the second leg. Thanks to the away goals, though, they marched on as the rest of the East’s favorites — New York City FC and Atlanta United — fell in the wake of of Columbus Crew SC, whom TFC would battle ever so tightly for 180 minutes in the East finals. After a 0-0 draw in the first leg in Columbus, it was Altidore who bagged the only goal of the tie with only 30 minutes remaining before a trip to extra-time.

Favorites for revenge?

It would be unwise to look past TFC — for all of the above reasons, and for the fact that despite losing last year’s final, they completely dominated the game from beginning to end. Seattle failed to register a single shot on target over 120 minutes. It’s a hugely different side they’ll line up against on Saturday — as we’ll outline in just a moment — but they’ve already done everything necessary, with the exception of beating an indomitable Stefan Frei, to lift the Cup.

Road to repeat

Squad

For Seattle, the biggest roster moves of 2017 came with far less fanfare — and a fair bit less money. First things first, the one that came from within: head coach Brian Schmetzer — whether by design or as a result of circumstances — turned the keys over to 22-year-old midfielder Cristian Roldan. Osvaldo Alonso played the third-fewest games (26) of his MLS career, including none of the last three during the regular season and none of Seattle’s four playoff games thus far. He has been ruled out for Saturday’s final, and that will do a great deal for Seattle’s continuity. When paired with Gustav Svensson, a steal of a signing ($170,000) still getting call-ups to the Swedish national team, Seattle have one of the best, most functional double-pivots in the league.

The other impact signing of 2017: Kelvin Leerdam ($455,000), a 27-year-old Dutch right back, was correctly identified as the perfect puzzle piece missing in Seattle. Following his arrival in mid-July, Seattle lost just two of their final 15 games (Leerdam started the final 14) as they climbed the Western Conference standings and finished second.

Season

As it turns out, Schmetzer knew exactly what he was doing back in March, April and May, when the Sounders had won just two of their first 11 games and looked legitimately lost and spiraling out of control — to the outside world. In reality, Schmetzer had two very important early-season objectives: 1) experiment with different combinations — particularly figuring out where/how to use Clint Dempsey upon his return from an irregular heartbeat that cost him the entire 2016 MLS Cup run; and, 2) maintaining a slow boil for a largely veteran team which was afforded just over a full month of downtime last winter.

Warmer weather arrived, and so did a familiar run of red-hot results: following those early-season struggles, Seattle lost just four of their final 23 games between mid-May and the end of October.

The playoff run

TFC head coach Greg Vanney made a few pointed remarks concerning the level of competition — or, lack thereof — which Seattle has faced thus far in the playoffs, and it’s tough to invalidate anything he said without taking away from a dominant run by the Rave Green. The Vancouver Whitecaps had become a shell of their best, former selves by season’s end; they fell easily in the Western Conference semifinals, 2-0. The Houston Dynamo, whom Seattle throttled to the tune of 5-0 in the East finals, finished neither with 11 men and played a combined 85 minutes with a man disadvantage.

Favorites for a repeat?

Seattle aren’t favorites, per se, but here’s the case for a repeat: they’re probably a better overall team than they were exactly 12 months ago. Here’s the flip side to that, though, and what could ultimately prove to be their downfall: while the floor has risen considerably, so has the ceiling, due to a less than stellar season from Nicolas Lodeiro, last year’s unquestioned difference maker, and a defense which is inevitably another year older and slower. From an entertainment perspective, the best thing that can happen on Saturday is an early TFC goal, forcing Seattle to chase an equalizer and opening the game up with at least an hour to play.

U.S. Soccer names Player of the Year nominees

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We suppose it doesn’t matter all that much given the presumptive winner, but the five nominees for the United States male soccer player of the year lead to a bit of head-scratching.

Christian Pulisic, of course, is going to win the awards hands-down after an exceptional year, one of the rare stars in Stars and Stripes to not let down the USMNT in World Cup qualifying.

The men competing for spots Nos. 2-5? Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jordan Morris, and Clint Dempsey. Of the three, only Morris has failed to win it before (which is not exactly a failure considering his young age).

[ MORE: Premier League Player Power Rankings ]

In terms of national team play, Bradley led the U.S. in minutes with 1,198 in 2017, with Dempsey’s five goals and four assists only bested by Pulisic’s six and four. Altidore scored four goals with three assists, while Morris has four goals and an assist.

Who can feel the most burnt? Well, DeAndre Yedlin for one, though he only played in six caps thanks to the U.S. going B side for the Gold Cup. Graham Zusi and Geoff Cameron would love shouts, but were limited in playing time.

Here’s a trivia *fun* fact: Can you name the USMNT’s Top Five minute men this season, including No.1  Bradley? Jorge Villafana is second, Darlington Nagbe third, Omar Gonzalez fourth, and Tim Howard fifth.

The Young Male Award, which cannot be won twice, is down to Josh Sargent, Tim Weah, Tyler Adams, Luca de la Torre,  Jonathan Gonzalez, and Erik Palmer-Brown.

Up for the women’s award? Julie Ertz, Alex Morgan, Lindsey Horan, Samantha Mewis, and Megan Rapinoe. Becky Sauerbrunn piled up a team-high 16 matches, tied with Mewis, and probably got the short end of the stick thanks to Rapinoe playing a more glamorous position.

Sounders finish off Dynamo to set up MLS Cup rematch

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The game in 100 words (or less): MLS Cup 2017 will be a rematch of MLS Cup 2016 — same two teams, same venue, hopefully not the same boring final. Toronto FC booked their place by narrowly knocking off Columbus Crew SC on Wednesday, a day before the Seattle Sounders soundly defeated the Houston Dynamo, 3-0 on the night and 5-0 on aggregate, to claim a second straight Western Conference championship. The finalists will meet at BMO Field — where Seattle knocked off Toronto last year — on Saturday, Dec. 9. Victor Rodriguez scored the early goal that, for all intents and purposes, put the tie to bed. Clint Dempsey and Will Bruin chipped in with a second and third on the night, respectively, as Seattle native Brian Schmetzer watched his side cruise into next weekend’s

[ MORE: MVP favorites Valeri, Villa headline 2017 Best XI ]

Three moments that mattered

22′ — Bruin sets up Rodriguez, and it’s 3-0 — Ladies and gentlemen, Will Bruin, the play-making no. 10.

57′ — Dempsey taps home a perfect ball from Jones — It’s a shame Joevin Jones will be leaving MLS on a free transfer this winter.

66′ — Martinez sees red for violent conduct — What Tomas Martinez does here isn’t so much violent or dangerous, as it is bafflingly stupid and unnecessary. The stupidity is so nearly deserving of the sending-off on its own.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Will Bruin

Goalscorers: Rodriguez (22′), Dempsey (57′), Bruin (73′)

Cristian Roldan is the Sounders unassuming, unknown star

Yi-Chin Lee/Houston Chronicle via AP
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TUKWILA, Wash. (AP) Most times when the topic of young midfielder Cristian Roldan is brought up, Seattle Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer can’t stop raving.

From the time Roldan moved into the starting lineup for the Sounders, Schmetzer has seen the potential for Roldan to be an anchor in the middle of the field. And the U.S. national team is starting to take notice, too.

“He consistently puts in good performances,” Schmetzer said. “Not just physically, but tactically and technically he puts in really solid performances.”

[ MORE: Man City wins it at the death ]

Roldan will never have the big goal numbers like teammates Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris, but he’s among the players who have the Sounders on the cusp of a return to the MLS Cup final. Seattle takes a 2-0 lead into the second-leg of the Western Conference final against Houston on Thursday night. The Sounders would advance with a win, draw or even a one-goal loss.

Roldan has been the anchor for most of this year, the best of his three MLS seasons. The midfielder is worthy of consideration for the MLS Best XI and is among the options for a national team not likely to play a match of importance until 2019.

“I think it’s been positive. I still believe I have a ton to improve on and I never want to get settled on this season, on being decent,” Roldan said. “I want to get better. I want to get in to the national team consistently and next year is another year and I want to keep improving. I’ve been very happy with this year but never content and I think that’s a positive going forward.”

Roldan started 33 of 34 regular season matches this season and finished with six goals. He played the second-most minutes of anyone on Seattle’s roster.

Again, stats will never tell the full story with the Roldan. Not when his job is to be able to push forward to help the offensive attack, but sometimes race 70 or 80 yards back on defense to help shut down an offensive attack by the opposition.

It’s that ability to play both ways that drew the attention of the national team. Roldan was called up for the first time during the summer when the U.S. was playing in the CONCACAF Gold Cup and made his national team debut. But the more important call up came later in the summer when Roldan was part of the camp prior to World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Honduras.

“To be in the second-to-last qualifiers where the U.S. is facing elimination for the World Cup, that’s a huge deal,” Roldan said. “Hopefully I can get to the point where I’m playing and starting every game, but to be in the running as my second call up that is big for my career going forward and I think it was big for this year as a confidence boost.”

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Dempsey recalled being in a similar situation as Roldan early in his career and getting that first national team call up was a huge influence on the development of his career.

“I would say confidence is a huge thing, being able to know he can play at that level. The more experience you get playing in games, playing in big games you get that confidence and also you improve,” Dempsey said. “He keeps working on his skills, keeps working on his game, looking at tape, trying to figure out ways to better himself and when you’re hungry and you work hard, you’re only going to get better. He has to keep pushing and doing what he’s doing and that’s kind of what I had to do.”

2017 CONCACAF Awards shortlist revealed

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The 2017 CONCACAF Awards shortlist is up, and fan voting counts.

Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, and Christian Pulisic are among the nominees for Men’s Player of the Year. Philadelphia Union’s Jamaican backstop, Andre Blake, is also on the list along with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and others.

[ MORE: Big American Soccer Survey results ]

The Female Player of the Year is predictably American-heavy, with Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Ertz, Megan Rapinoe, Sam Mewis, and Tobin Heath competing with a trio of international players.

Tim Howard is the only American up for Male Goalkeeper of the Year, though Blake is again in the running. The female side has American backstops Adrianna Franch, Alyssa Naeher, Ashlyn Harris, Jane Campbell, and Nicole Barnhart.

The full ballot, including Best XI, coaches, referees, and goals, is up for your votes here.