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Champions! TFC crowned MLS Cup champs for first time

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The game in 100 words (or less more): For the first time in franchise history, Toronto FC are champions of Major League Soccer. The best team in the regular season, the last team standing in the postseason. For more than an hour, Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Seattle, the side that broke TFC hearts a year ago, looked painfully familiar for Reds fans, as Stefan Frei, MVP of the 2016 final, turned in another man-of-the-match performance and appeared altogether unbeatable. The Swiss-turned-American goalkeeper made 10 saves before Altidore broke through for TFC, courtesy of some gorgeous build-up play flowing through fellow superstars Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco. TFC thoroughly dominated from start to finish — again, just like last year’s final — to the tune of 22 shots to 7 (11-2 on target). If not for Frei’s early-game heroics, the score would have been 3-0 by halftime. The postseason title puts a tidy bow on top of an already historic season for TFC, who set a new regular-season points record — in a much tougher Eastern Conference, to boot — and leaves little to no doubt over which team was truly the best of 2017.

[ BRADLEY: “Dream became obsession” in pursuit of MLS Cup ]

Three Four Five Six moments that mattered

11′ — Frei rushes out to deny Giovinco — Frei and Sebastian Giovinco will get the majority of the attention here (for the save and blown chance, respectively), but the 50-yard through ball from Victor Vazquez is the real story here. It almost doesn’t look real.

41′ — Frei denies Vazquez at full-stretch — Frei’s made six saves in the first half — none of which were individually spectacular in difficulty,

60′ — Bradley fires from distance, Frei saves again — Michael Bradley, who was neck-and-neck with Frei for best player on the field, made solid contact on a volley from 25 yards out, but Frei was able to get his body behind the bouncing ball and record save no. 8.

64′ — Frei gets to Giovinco’s shot through traffic — Frei couldn’t have seen this ball through a sea of bodies more than a quarter-second before reacting and diving to his left-hand post.

67′ – Finally, at long last, Frei is beaten — For the first time in 714 minutes of playoff soccer, Seattle are beaten. From back to front in five passes and 11 seconds, finished by Altidore, lifted over Frei and into the back of the net.

90+4′ — Vazquez slams home a rebound for 2-0 — Armando Cooper slammed the initial shot off the post, but Vazquez cleaned up the mess to send BMO Field into bedlam.

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Man of the match: Michael Bradley

Goalscorers: Altidore (67′), Vazquez (90+4′)

FOLLOW LIVE: TFC vs. Sounders — MLS Cup 2017

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It started back on March 3, 390 games ago, and it all comes down to this — MLS Cup 2017, a rematch of the 2016 final between Toronto FC, the hosts and favorites, and the visiting Seattle Sounders at BMO Field.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: TFC host Sounders in MLS Cup rematch ]

Seattle lifted the Cup on TFC’s home field last season, and Brian Schmetzer’s side is back with intentions to spoil spoil the party once again. Greg Vanney’s Reds are desperate for a small measure of revenge, and to cap off the best regular season in league history with the first league title in team history.

Neither Schmetzer nor Vanney have sprung any surprises by way of their starting lineups which can be found below.

Follow along at the link above — or, click here — and check back to PST throughout the game, and following the final whistle, for wall-to-wall coverage of the 2017 finale.

By the numbers: A closer look at Saturday’s MLS Cup final

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Toronto FC aims to avenge its 2016 MLS Cup defeat to the Seattle Sounders on Saturday, as the two clubs meet again at BMO Field.

Brian Schmetzer and the Sounders look to take down TFC on their home field for the second consecutive season, while Greg Vanney and Co. hope to earn the club’s first MLS Cup trophy in team history.

[ PREVIEW: Will Toronto FC take down Sounders on Saturday? ]

Here’s a closer look at the two clubs that will contest tomorrow’s finale.


— Times these two teams have met this season (1-0 TFC victory)

33 — Combined goals between TFC duo Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, including playoffs

194 — Clint Dempsey‘s total MLS appearances since being drafted back in 2004

24 — Number of times Toronto has had a multi-goal game in 2017

14 — Different coaches that have won MLS Cup (Vanney would become the 15th)

7   Combined losses between TFC and the Sounders since June 1

17 — Victor Vasquez assists in his first season with TFC

1.09 — Stefan Frei’s goals against average during the regular season (2nd-lowest in MLS)

3 — Number of times Toronto has hosted the final

11 — Different teams that have won MLS Cup

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.

Sounders’ Stefan Frei returns to site of his famous moment

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TUKWILA, Wash. (AP) Stefan Frei would like to make one thing perfectly clear before the Seattle Sounders set foot again in Toronto.

[ MORE: Kathy Carter announces run for U.S. Soccer president ]

He would prefer it if someone else on the Sounders roster becomes the MVP of the MLS Cup final this time.

“I would really prefer it if one of our strikers became MVP this year,” Seattle’s starting goalkeeper said with a chuckle.

Frei will return to the scene of his greatest professional moment Saturday when the Sounders face Toronto in the championship match trying to become the fourth team in MLS history to win consecutive league titles.

A year ago, Frei made one of the most stunning saves in the history of MLS championship matches, changing directions and leaping in desperation to get his left hand on Jozy Altidore‘s attempted header in extra time that seemed destined for the top corner of the goal. It was the save Seattle needed to get to penalty kicks, where Frei made another save on Michael Bradley and Roman Torres eventually won the title for the Sounders with his made penalty in the sixth round.

But it’s the save on Altidore that everyone remembers and is certain to be shown repeatedly prior to Saturday’s rematch.

“I’m going to try and do the same thing as last year and at some point really zone out you guys and social media and just focus on the game,” Frei said.

While last year’s game will get a lot of the attention this week, it’s the defensive performance in this year’s playoff run that deserves the focus. Seattle has yet to allow a goal in four postseason games. The Sounders haven’t allowed a goal since a 2-0 loss to Philadelphia on Oct. 1. That’s a span of six full games since a shot got past Frei or backup Tyler Miller. Miller started the first leg of the West finals against Houston while Frei was slowed by a leg injury.

In the postseason, the Sounders have not allowed a goal since the first leg of the 2016 West finals, the longest postseason shutout streak in MLS history.

“It builds confidence throughout the squad when you have someone like Stef in goal,” Seattle forward Will Bruin said. “He’s going to make a big save when needed.”

For Frei, the final in Toronto will be the conclusion of nearly two non-stop seasons of soccer. It started in February 2016 when Seattle opened its training camp. Between the length of last year’s MLS season and being called into the U.S. national team training camp last January, Frei only had a few weeks of rest in between last year’s championship match and the start of preparations for this season.

But this has arguably been his finest season in MLS. Frei led the league with 13 shutouts in the regular season. In a sign of how much Seattle has improved defensively, he was forced to save just 84 shots in the regular season, the fewest of his four seasons with Seattle.

Frei made it a point to appreciate the atmosphere and celebration after Seattle beat Houston to clinch the Western Conference title last week. A year ago, all Seattle celebrations came away from home. When the final whistle blew last Thursday, Frei climbed on the crossbar of his goal in front of Seattle’s most rabid supporters and pumped his fists in celebration. While the championship match will again be in Toronto, at least part of this run was shared with the fans at home.

“It was awesome. I wish I could have given everybody in the stadium a hug,” Frei said. “We were so fortunate to get on that run last year and capture two trophies, but unfortunately both of them were away from home. So this last weekend when we had a chance to win one at home was amazing.”