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Defending champ Sounders open camp with plenty of questions

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TUKWILA, Wash. — Barely two months after celebrating their second MLS Cup title, the Seattle Sounders opened training camp Tuesday in a winter snowstorm.

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The thin layer of snow on the practice field was hardly the biggest obstacle facing Seattle after a challenging offseason. Players have departed and the team has struggled to finalize new signings – not to mention league-wide uncertainty regarding negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.

All told, it’s been a quiet break for a team trying to build on last year’s title run.

“That offseason after you win is always the roughest offseason because everyone gets recruited, right?” general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “Understandably and correctly, everyone’s like, `Oh, you have a really good team, we want your players. And so players get other opportunities. So we have to always work through that. And if you combine that with not having a CBA, that’s been really tough.”

The Sounders will return the core of a roster that led Seattle to its second league championship, but Lagerwey would like to make supplemental additions, especially entering a season where depth will be tested due to the number of competitions Seattle faces. Along with the MLS season, the Sounders will also be in the CONCACAF Champions League, U.S. Open Cup and the Campeones Cup against the champion of LigaMX.

Making those additions would be easier for Lagerwey and coach Brian Schmetzer if Seattle knew the structure of the CBA. Right now, it’s all a guessing game.

“They’ll tell us when they tell us, and when they tell us, then we’ll jump in and do everything we can,” Lagerwey said. “In the meantime, you wind up as a GM doing more work because you have to have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C, and you might not be able to execute any of them.”

The uncertainty of the CBA has a major trickle-down for Seattle, especially in its more glaring area of need along its defense. The Sounders started camp with just one center back in Xavier Arreaga and in need of a left defender. Roman Torres signed with Inter Miami in the offseason, and both Kim Kee-hee and Brad Smith – key contributors to Seattle’s defense – are unlikely to return, Lagerwey said.

Midfielder Victor Rodriguez, who scored the key second goal in the final victory over Toronto, is also not returning to Seattle.

For now, a thin roster is fine. But Seattle begins its busy season on Feb. 20 when it starts play in the Champions League. The Sounders open the MLS season on March 1 hosting Chicago.

“It’s challenging to open training camp without perhaps a full roster,” Schmetzer said. “I can’t hide from that fact. But that’s part of life.”

Seattle players, coach credit bravery for MLS Cup win

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Toronto FC came to CenturyLink Field and maintained 65% possession on the road, completing 497 passes to the home side’s 217.

And yet, Seattle matched Toronto shot for shot, and ultimately came away with the season’s biggest prize via a 3-1 win in the MLS Cup final. Christian Roldan admitted “it wasn’t our plan” to concede so much possession, yet it did not phase the hosts.

“First of all, I just want to say that we don’t, our team, our club, we don’t operate in the realm of fear,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said to begin his post-match press conference. “We don’t do that, we address problems, we overcome, we try and be better at everything that we do and I think we respect our opponents, but we don’t have any fear.”

Being brave and overcoming the early Toronto wave of pressure was a common theme among the players and coaches following the win. “Today was a day we didn’t play our best game, but we fought and we kept going,” said goalkeeper Stefan Frei. “Yes, maybe we didn’t have a season like LAFC, but honestly in the end, I could care less how pretty we play. [Forget] possession and all those other stats. In the end we got another star and that’s what matters.”

Midfielder Christian Roldan trumpeted not only his team’s grit, but also their ability to adapt to different scenarios, all while remaining stout at the back. “The whole playoffs I feel like we were down possession, and we played three games at home,” Roldan said after the win. “That’s unlike Seattle, right? The fact of the matter is we won those games. We found ways to win and I think that’s what makes this team so special. We played in many different ways throughout the year and in the postseason. That’s an example of why this team is so special.”

Despite the hefty possessional disadvantage, Seattle finished with 14 shots, exactly as many as Toronto collected, and they picked up one more shot on target, winning that battle 6-5. They also amassed a whopping 10 corner kicks to Toronto’s four and won the expected goal count by a significant margin, 1.63-0.93.

“We just come out and play our game,” said forward Jordan Morris, who overcame a torn ACL last season to collect 10 goals and six assists this season, plus another three in the playoffs. “I think some people didn’t think we’d be here at the beginning of the playoffs and the last couple of games, we just wanted to prove that we deserve to be here.”

Not only did the Sounders prove they belonged, they proved worthy of the trophy.

Seattle 3-1 Toronto: Sounders lift MLS Cup again (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less): For the second time in four seasons, the Seattle Sounders are MLS champions by way of defeating Toronto FC in MLS Cup 2019, cementing their claim to one of a select few dynasties in league history (coupled with four U.S. Open Cups in 11 years since joining MLS). 69,274 were in attendance for the tie-breaking title decider at CenturyLink Field (Seattle and Toronto met in back-to-back MLS Cups in 2016 and 2017, with each side winning one). While Atlanta United romped to the 2018 title with exciting, free-flowing soccer, Seattle and Toronto reached Sunday’s final by way of a far more pragmatic approach — one from which neither side deviated, to the disappointment of most anyone not sporting Rave Green.

The game (finally) opened up with Kelvin Leerdam’s 57th-minute goal — which should have gone down as a Justin Morrow own goal — before Victor Rodriguez bagged the eventual winner with a terrific curler in the 76th. Raul Ruidiaz added an insurance goal in the 90th minute, unofficially kicking off what will undoubtedly be a week full of celebrations in the Emerald City. Jozy Altidore‘s 93rd-minute consolation goal could do little to dampen the mood.

[ VIDEO: USMNT’s DeAndre Yedlin talks goal, celebration for Newcastle ]

Three things we learned

1. Clash of styles, adjustments in first half: So often in this game — and throughout the second half of the season — Seattle could be found defending with 10 and 11 players behind the ball, all within 15 or 20 yards of their own penalty area. That was the case once again on Sunday, as all four of Ruidiaz Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Joevin Jones are always ready to track back when Brad Smith and Kelvin Leerdam bomb forward.

They’re far from a bunkering side, though, as the full backs are as much attackers as they are defenders. Few teams in MLS counter-attack with the pace and precision of Seattle, regardless of who wins the ball, regardless of where they win it. TFC want as much of the ball as they can have — they do a fantastic job of controlling the game’s pace with their own possession — and the opened the game with plenty of possession, but every time Seattle won it they were off to the races in the blink of an eye. The Reds realized they couldn’t fend off counter after counter for 90 minutes, causing them to drop considerably deeper after 15 minutes. This meant it was almost all Seattle, as far as the chances went, for the ensuing 15 minutes.

Having now dropped too deep, TFC let the midfield-three of Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio and Marco Delgado set the line of confrontation in the middle third. Seattle had no answer for this — at least not in the first half — and TFC looked in complete control, without truly threatening Stefan Frei in Seattle’s goal, until Ruidiaz found himself with the game’s first real scoring chance in the 45th minute. Quentin Westberg was quick off his line to deny the Peruvian’s one-on-one look.

2. A fitting goal: To which you might say, “It doesn’t matter how they scored, only that they scored.” While technically correct, those who tuned in and persisted through the 90 minutes deserved something better than the Leerdam ricochet-goal/Morrow own-goal winner that they got.

3. Rodriguez makes a massive difference: Fortunately, Rodriguez had a moment of magic up his sleeve after coming on just after the hour mark. Smith made way for the Spaniard, a savvy tactical change by Brian Schmetzer to play with greater width down the right side (Morris) and tuck the left (Rodriguez) inside and underneath Ruidiaz. After finding little joy with the original down either side in the opening 60 minutes, Schmetzer’s change opened TFC up to constant goal threats before Rodriguez made it 2-0. Sure, TFC facing a deficit changed their gameplan considerably and forced them to live dangerously, but Seattle remained steadfast in soaking up pressure and hitting on the counter.

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Man of the match: Raul Ruidiaz

Goalscorers: Leerdam (57′), Rodriguez (76′), Ruidiaz (90′), Altidore (90’+3)

LIVE, MLS Cup Final: Seattle v. Toronto (again)

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Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders match wits in an MLS Cup Final for the third time in four years when they meet Sunday at CenturyLink Field in Washington.

[ FOLLOW LIVE: Seattle v. Toronto ]

It’s a 3 p.m. ET kickoff, and the heavily-favored Sounders will be captained by playmaking wizard Nicolas Lodeiro as they bid for a second MLS crown.

[ MORE: Five key questions for the final ]

Jozy Altidore has a place on the bench for TFC, but whether that’s a smokescreen will not be known until the final throes of the last match on the Major League Soccer calendar for 2019.

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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.