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.
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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
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.
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
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.
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.