Soccer fever has swept Canada in recent weeks and that outbreak figures to reach a fever pitch this Saturday night when over 35,000 Torontonians along with a hearty handful of Seattleites pack Toronto’s BMO Field for the 21st MLS Cup Championship match.
With two first-time finalists competing for the league’s top prize we are assured that come Saturday a new club will raise the Cup for the first time.
The two squads have taken different routes to this final, both this year and in their relatively brief histories.
Toronto joined the league in 2007, two seasons ahead of the Sounders. The team’s current boss, coach Greg Vanney, is the seventh man to lead TFC on a full-time basis in that time, with two interim coaches also in the mix. And that’s without getting into the various management changes at the executive level.
Whether that instability was caused by or was the cause of Toronto missing the playoffs after each of its first eight seasons, the curse was finally reversed last season when Vanney led TFC to its first-ever postseason berth.
In contrast, Seattle made the playoffs at the first time of the asking in 2009 and have been back every year since. Sigi Schmidt could be spotted prowling the sidelines for all of that time, as Seattle’s only coach of the MLS era, until management cut Schmidt loose in July with the possibility of missing out on the playoffs looming.
The sudden pre-season departure of Obafemi Martins to China put Seattle in an early funk and the injury loss of central defender Roman Torres would also play a part as 2016 unspooled.
Then Brian Schmetzer took over, Nicolas Lodeiro arrived from Uruguay, and here we are.
Even the loss of Clint Dempsey to a heart ailment could not stall Seattle’s revival as Lodeiro teamed with Rookie of the Year winner Morris to spark Seattle’s attack and Torres returned to strengthen the defense aided by defensive midfield duo Ozzie Alonso and second-year man Christian Roldan.
Toronto was more consistent team throughout the season and the additions of savvy MLS vets like Drew Moor, Justin Morrow, Steven Beitashour, and Will Johnson solidified a side that may have been previously overly dependent upon its expensive DP trio of Giovinco, Bradley, and Altidore.
So, what happens on Saturday? With temperatures of 28 degrees predicted for kickoff, it may be too much to ask for a repeat of Toronto’s thrilling second leg victory in the Eastern Conference Final over Montreal.
TFC won that match by a 5-2 score to secure the tie by a 7-5 margin. It fit a playoff long pattern that has seen Vanney’s side outscore its playoff opposition 17-5 across five games. Altidore has led the way with five goals and five assists, stealing the spotlight from Giovinco who has been “quiet” despite notching just one less goal than his fellow DP over the same span.
Seattle has been less explosive in its playoff run but has arguably arrived at this MLS Cup having traveled the rougher road. After topping Sporting Kansas City 1-0 in the first round the Sounders dismissed Supporters Shield winners, Dallas, before topping the league’s best defensive side, Colorado by a 3-1 margin over two legs.
A revived Nelson Valdez pitched in alongside Morris and Lodeiro and Seattle has gotten good goalkeeping from ex-Toronto custodian Stefan Frei, who would surely love to come up big against the club that deemed him expendable after the 2013 season.
Seattle has the more accomplished defense and the game within the game between Giovinco and Altidore and Torres and Chad Marshall should be fascinating.
At the other end of the pitch, Vanney’s back three features veteran Drew Moor between the youngish pair of Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund, a trio that some believe can be exploited.
Then there is the midfield battle. Seattle is dare I say it, sound, with Alonso and Roldan in front of the back four. Meanwhile, Michael Bradley centers a five-man TFC midfield with Beitashour and Morrow operating as wingbacks while Will Johnson and Armando Cooper flank the U.S. MNT captain.
Bradley has come under a lot of criticism for his recent performances for his country and he may be looking at this MLS Cup Final as a chance to prove a point.
Then again, motivation shouldn’t be a problem Saturday night. On a frigid night goals figure to be at a premium. Can Moor and his wingmen hold off Morris and Lodeiro? And can anyone stop the Giovinco, Altidore tandem, especially with a motivated Bradley pushing into the Toronto attack?
Toronto’s back three doesn’t inspire the same confidence of the Canadian front runners, nor indeed does Vanney’s defense stack up well versus Seattle’s backsmen.
Ultimately the difference makers get paid to make the difference in big games and Toronto has more of those specialty items than Seattle, especially with Clint Dempsey sidelined.
With that in mind, Toronto is the choice here to raise MLS Cup in front of its home fans at BMO Field this Saturday night.