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MLS Cup: Five key questions on Seattle Sounders vs Toronto FC

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Despite the emergence and rise of the Atlanta United’s and LAFC’s of the world, MLS is going to complete its first MLS Cup trilogy in front of a sold-out CenturyLink Field on Sunday, as the Seattle Sounders take on Toronto FC for the third time in four years.

Make no mistakes, however, the stakes remain high – perhaps higher than ever before – as both sides look to add a second star above their crest. With the financial and quality bar consistently being raised across the board, this may be the first and last MLS Cup trilogy for a pair of decades.

So, who will win it? Will Jozy Altidore even make the visitor’s 18? Pro Soccer Talk answers some of the most pressing questions ahead of the highly-anticipated final.

Will Jozy Altidore take the field for Toronto? 

Let it be clear: Even if Altidore was ready to go, Toronto are still in Yakima, Washington looking in. Now, without the striker in the equation entirely, things start going from bitter to sour instantaneously for the Reds.

Which begs the question: where does Altidore’s health stand less than 24 hours away from the final?

“I got on the field yesterday, it felt good going through the motions and set-ups,” Altidore told reporters on Saturday. “It felt good. Today is another day to push it more and try to make myself available. This is it, the last day before the game. See how it reacts, put it under a little more stress.”

And according to coach Greg Vanney, Toronto are preparing for an MLS Cup with the 30-year-old healthy and ready to go – not 100 percent, just healthy enough to see some minutes on the field.

“We were able to get him through training yesterday, he was okay coming out of it,” Vanney said. “This morning we did as much as we felt we could do. If he comes out of it okay tonight, we’ll see what kind of role — if any — he can play tomorrow. He’s battled through this injury, I’m still hopeful that tomorrow when he gets up and feels great. If there’s nothing really wrong with him, we’ll try and make use of him as much as possible. I’m encouraged with the steps he’s been able to take so far.”

So, it sounds like it won’t take a miracle after all for Altidore to feature in the biggest game of the season. Or maybe the miracle already occurred.

Now is there enough pixie dust on the striker for him to step up and make a difference like the one he did against Seattle on a blistering cold night in Toronto back in 2017?

Is CenturyLink Field’s atmosphere going to outshine last year’s venue?  

Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium was loud in last year’s final, and the record-breaking 73,019 spectators in attendance had everything to do with it.

On Sunday, the attendance won’t be up to par to last year’s, but if CenturyLink Field has been known for something over the past 17 years, it’s the decibels and seismic activity it can generate. 69,000 are expected for the final, with the strong majority boasting Sounders blue, rave green, and cascade shale.

The Sounders already put on a spectacle at home throughout the regular season. With anxiety, thrill and excitement that finals bring to them by association, expect a couple of tremors in Seattle, if the Sounders deliver in emphatic fashion.

Raul Ruidiaz or Alejandro Pozuelo: Who needs to step up more? 

With Toronto being the unapologetic underdog, instinctually, one would immediately turn and point at Pozuelo.

After all, the least one can ask for in that position is for your best player to live up to the billing in the most meaningful game of the season. Espcially with Altidore’s participation still in doubt, there are more reasons to pile the pressure on Pozuelo, who has scored two goals in Toronto’s playoff run.

After taking the league and Seattle by storm, doesn’t Ruidiaz have a world of business to finish, though?

“It would be very special,” Ruidiaz said of winning MLS Cup against Toronto. “It would be my second title overseas. I won a championship in Chile. I think when you arrive at a club you always have the desire to give the team the biggest joy, which is a star (above the crest) for the team.

“I’m a small step away from that and from achieving what we we all want, which is to give a moment of joy to a city and club that deserve it.”

Long story short, he does.

Like Pozuelo for Toronto, Ruidiaz is one of Seattle’s most lucrative investments ever. His impact on and off the field has been invaluable for a team that was desperately trying to fill the shoes of Clint Dempsey. He’s elevated teammates Nico Lodeiro and Jordan Morris. They’ve gotten everything from it besides the cup, the star above the crest.

Ultimately, it’s a world of choice. But keep in mind that one player is encouraged to be at his best, while the other is expected to deliver for a city ready to see its team lift the cup at home.

What will another MLS Cup mean for either team? 

Only five teams have two or more MLS Cups, but that will change by the time Allen Chapman blows the final whistle.

Another piece of silverware for Seattle would expand their total count to seven, while Toronto can add a ninth to their trophy case. There are no doubts that both teams are embodiment of historical success in their respective countries.

As the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., how do you pump the brakes on being MLS’ highest payroll spenders with a fresh, second star above the crest in a market that has showcased true, organic hunger for not only the sport in general, but for the Toronto FC?

You don’t, and it’s unlikely that Ali Curtis comes back to the office with a tighter financial proposal. If anything, a win would encourage higher investment all across the board and especially on the first-team, regardless if Michael Bradley’s $6.5 million option is triggered. After all, they can get creative, hence Pozuelo’s sitcom episode-esque arrival.

The same goes for the Sounders.

A second star would generate a soccer buzz unlike any other for the proper and great community of Seattle, while it would also invites majority owner Adrian Hanauer to keep the Sounders within the top six spenders of the league. With Xavier Arreaga likely to be demoted from his Designated Player role in the offseason, there will be room for the Sounders to make an additional splash.

In the end, as it is anywhere in the world of sports, titles bring bragging rights and an influx of cash. Seattle and Toronto will not be the exceptions.

When all is said and done, who will hoist the cup?

Arguably better on all sectors of the field, the 2019 MLS Cup is Seattle’s to lose, there are no ifs, ands or buts about it.

However, when the ball starts rolling on the artificial turf, determination and hunger will quickly weave out the side that holds lower levels of the aforementioned. With over 60,000 chanting to the tune of their crest and colors, it’s unlikely that Toronto will gain the cognitive advantage.

That said, the visitors are outweighed in both departments, and will need to lean on heroic moments like the ones showcased by Nicolas Benezet and Nick DeLeon against Atlanta United. An MLS Cup seems fitting for pure, sacred MLS soccer, no?

Sure, but there have been times in which MLS doesn’t MLS for the sake of just MLSing. The feeling in the air is that Sunday is one of those, which in practice, looks like a physical, choppy and segmented battle in which Seattle will come out on top.

MLS Cup Final preview: The storylines

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Sunday brings us a familiar title bout, as the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC will meet in Washington in bids for their second MLS Cup title.

The first two finals took place in Canada, with Seattle outlasting TFC via penalty kicks in the 2016 final before Jozy Altidore and Victor Vazquez struck to lead the Reds to a 2-0 win a year later.

[ RECAPS: Man Utd 3-0 Partizan | Wolves 1-0 Slovan Bratislava ]

Sunday will be the 702nd days since the two sides squared off in 2017, and this time Seattle will have a sold out CenturyLink Field buzzing for the “three-match.”

Some things to watch:

— Like the regular season, please? While TFC and Seattle played two pretty cagey finals, they staged a 3-2 thriller earlier this season. Jozy Altidore and Will Bruin had it 1-1 at half in the same venue as Sunday’s final before three goals in six second half minutes allowed for a nutty win for the Sounders.

— Will Jozy play? It’s the subplot that seems unlikely but could turn this game from having a heavy favorite in Seattle to holding heavy drama. Altidore said it would take a “miracle” for him to play, but Seattle thinks the forward is playing mind games.

— USMNT v. USMNT: On one side, Toronto FC has Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley as American stars who returned home after adventures abroad. On the other you’ll find Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan, who so far have resisted that temptation. The Reds also have Omar Gonzalez, so the bragging rights are there for the taking.

— Can Toronto hold onto the ball? TFC is one of a handful of teams to hold more than 50 percent possession both home and away, but Seattle’s midfield can be a collection of menaces. How disruptive will the Sounders be?

— Playmakers at volume: Each side has a supreme playmaker, capable of the sublime. In a cagey affair like this one, it’s fair to say that the abilities of Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle) and Alejandro Pozuelo (Toronto) to unlock defenses from distance may make the difference.

— Goalkeepers on different paths to hero roles: Stefan Frei came over from Europe through U.S. college soccer to have a good enough career that some MLS fans fantasize about him repping the USMNT. Quentin Westberg made his name in France before coming to Toronto and taking the No. 1 shirt from Alex Bono. Both have been and can be outstanding. It’s safe to say either is capable of being the Man of the Match.

— How big of an upset would it be if Toronto won? Well, it wasn’t too long ago that the Reds were the best team in Major League Soccer, and Alejandro Pozuelo isn’t a massive drop in quality from Sebastian Giovinco, but right now it looks like TFC will either not have Jozy Altidore or not have a full-strength Jozy Altidore. If the Reds manufacture a win without him, then Greg Vanney should get a lifetime contract.

2019 MLS Cup playoffs bracket in full

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With Decision Day in the rear view mirror, the 2019 MLS Cup playoffs bracket is all set.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Round 1 action starts on October 19-20, following the international break. Just days later, first seeds NYCFC and LAFC join the playoffs as the Conference Semifinals take place.

On October 29-30, the Conference Finals will be played, which will decide what two teams will feature in the 2019 MLS Cup final on November 10.

Below is the MLS playoff bracket in full. Who will go the farthest?

MLS Conference Finals: All to play for out West

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Ninety minutes plus stoppage time of soccer is all that separates two clubs from competing for ultimate league glory in the MLS Cup final.

Sporting Kansas City and the Portland Timbers have it all to play for in their second-leg matchup at Children’s Mercy Park, with neither side breaking the deadlock in the first leg in Portland. Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta United has one foot already wedged in the door for MLS Cup, after a thrilling 3-0 victory over a demoralized New York Red Bulls side that is feeling the crushing weight of history.

[READ: Robbie Keane announces retirement]

Let’s take a closer look at each conference’s second-leg matchups:

Sporting Kansas City (0) vs. Portland Timbers (0)

Sporting KC will hope that the Blue Wall at Children’s Mercy Park can help will the side to victory and a return to MLS Cup.

Peter Vermes’ side held off waves of Portland Timbers attacks last Sunday evening, holding on for a scoreless draw on the road. Sporting KC was also aided by the use of VAR, which correctly judged Liam Ridgewell to be offside when he headed a free kick off the post, eventually headed in by David Guzman. Diego Valeri was mostly marked out of the match, though Sporting KC’s star winger Johnny Russell had a pair of gilt-edged chances that he blasted over the bar.

Heading into this second leg, with just four days of rest, both teams will hope they can muster enough energy to get a goal and change the complexion of the game. The Timbers know that just one goal on their part will completely open up the game, forcing Sporting KC to try and get two goals in regulation. It will be a tough job for Portland though,. Sporting KC is unbeaten in its last eight patches and in the club’s last 12 matches with Portland, it has recorded a clean sheet in nine of them.

In the Timbers favor, the club has scored in seven-straight away matches, including beating FC Dallas on the road in the MLS Playoffs knockout round.

New York Red Bulls (0) vs. Atlanta United (3)

The New York Red Bulls are probably the only club happy that the second leg comes sooner than normal after the first leg.

Chris Armas’ tactical switch completely backfired, as Atlanta United scored in the first half to open up the game before the Red Bulls became much too open defensively, allowing goals from Franco Escobar and substitute Hector “Tito” Villalba late in the second half. It’s going to be a herculean feat for the Red Bulls to come back from this three-goal deficit, and Atlanta United will be poised to sit back, absorb pressure and ensure the final result.

It will either be a coronation or a funeral at Red Bull Arena come Thursday, as some of the world’s top young stars take the field once again. The Red Bulls need Tyler Adams’ dynamic running and energy in midfield, Kaku to create as the No. 10 and Bradley Wright-Phillips to find his finishing touch again. On the other side, the center-back trio of Michael Parkhurst, Leandro González Pírez and Jeff Larentowicz will be tasked with shutting down the Red Bulls attack, holding on to give Atlanta United one last home game this season.

Sounders in firm control after Leg 1

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The game in 100 words (or less): The Seattle Sounders took full control of the Western Conference finals with a resounding 2-0 win over ten-man Houston. The Sounders already had hit first in the 11th minute through Gustav Svensson but the red card to Jalil Anibaba changed the game. Houston had some chances later but fatigue meant the focus and control was off. Former Dynamo striker Will Bruin’s goal may have put the tie to bed.

Three moments that mattered

11′ — Gustav Svensson Goal — The Sounders wanted to set the tone early and they picked up an early goal off a corner kick, as Svensson redirected a header past Dynamo goalkeeper Joe Willis. The goal changed the complexion of the game to that point, until our next big moment.

28′ — Jalil Anibaba red card — Joevin Jones was a menace to deal with tonight and after getting past Anibaba, the latter pulled Jones down and as it appeared to be denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, Anibaba was given his marching orders. Suddenly, Houston, down a goal and down a man, had a lot more to do to stay in the tie. Nicolas Lodeiro missed the subsequent penalty kick but Will Bruin picked Lodeiro up later.

42′ — Will Bruin goal — The former Dynamo man scored a massive goal against his former club on a great cross from Jones on the left wing. While the tie isn’t over, the Sounders are in firm control and look set to repeat as Western Conference playoffs champions.

Man of the Match: Joevin Jones