MLS Cup 2017

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Bradley: “Dream became obsession” in pursuit of MLS Cup

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2017 was, to put it lightly and intentionally avoid re-litigating the multitude of failures put forth by the U.S. national team, a turbulent year for Toronto FC and USMNT captain Michael Bradley.

[ RECAP: TFC finally beat Frei and get their hands on MLS Cup ]

The was, of course, the national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup — we’re acknowledging it, but not delving any deeper right now — which has surely consumed his mind for the majority of the last two months, but before Oct. 10 came 10 full months of remembering and brooding over TFC’s 2016 MLS Cup defeat at the hands of the Seattle Sounders.

On Saturday, the Bradley-led Reds avenged last year’s heartbreak in storybook fashion — lifting MLS Cup after beating those same Sounders right back at the scene of last year’s torment, the friendly but raucous confines of BMO Field.

Not long after the final whistle, when approached for a television interview, Bradley was as thoughtful and introspective as ever. Never one to hide his emotions or conceal his true thoughts, the 30-year-old offered up the confession that what was once a dream — to lift MLS Cup in Toronto — had indeed become an obsession following last year’s loss.

“This has been the dream for four years, since the day I got here. For the last year, the dream has become an obsession. For this group of guys to work every single day, having to remember last year, to get back here and to play that game, in this atmosphere, with that on the line, it’s unbelievable.”

Long before Bradley began the move that would set up the eventual game-winning goal, scored by Jozy Altidore in the 67th minute (WATCH HERE), the groundwork was laid by TFC head coach Greg Vanney, who moved away from the tried and true three-man backline that had served the Reds so well all season — a regular-season points record — and opted for the 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield. Deployed at the base of the diamond, with Jonathan Osorio and Marco Delgado as the shuttlers ahead of him, Bradley turned in a man-of-the-match performance that’ll go down as one of the all-time great showings in MLS history.

Nothing will ease the pain of missing out on the World Cup — especially not once next summer rolls around and 32 other nations converge on Russia — but the 2017 story of Bradley and TFC, one of redemption and steadfast persistence, is a clear indicator that in trying times, MB90 responds like few others and he remains a necessary figure to lead the USMNT revolution in the coming months and years, as it’s reconfigured from top to bottom with an eye toward 2022.

Champions! TFC crowned MLS Cup champs for first time

Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP
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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.

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

Man of the match: Michael Bradley

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

FOLLOW LIVE: TFC vs. Sounders — MLS Cup 2017

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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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.

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.