It’s easy enough to refer to Saturday’s 2016 MLS Cup final (8pm ET – FOX) as “unlikely”, but that requires overlooking the game’s history. It’s rare for the MLS playoffs to advance the #1 seed from both conferences. The last time the Supporters’ Shield winner also won the MLS Cup was LA in 2011. Complain about the playoffs devaluing the regular season if you want, but the postseason is its own thing in MLS. Lose and go home, and a lot of very good teams do exactly that.
New York was the story in the East. Based on their regular seasons, either the Red Bulls or NYCFC should’ve made it through. Instead, it was an all-Canadian final that put Toronto into MLS Cup in dramatic fashion. Canada already has a domestic cup competition, and there’s no such thing as a substitute championship in MLS. Not even the Supporters’ Shield gets that. It’s the MLS Cup that counts.
Seattle wouldn’t consider that news. They know the limits of being a US Open Cup team. There’s no trade in value for an MLS Cup, something that began to gnaw at the biggest draw in the league. Seattle didn’t act to keep their run at a title alive. Sounders management acted to salvage something from a disaster of a season, parting ways with coach Sigi Schmid and trying to regroup. Somehow, it worked. Now permanent coach Brian Schmetzer did well beyond his job. That included making up for the season ending health issues that took Clint Dempsey out of the lineup.
All of a sudden, Seattle was good enough to be a problem in the West. That shouldn’t have convinced anybody that they were a serious contender. That changed when they knocked out the 1st and 2nd seeds. Certainly, Seattle benefited from injuries to starters on both the Supporters’ Shield winning FC Dallas and 2nd-place Colorado, but Seattle already had their own major player loss. Without Dempsey, Seattle’s attack had to shift. That normally means doom in MLS.
Maybe it’s because the rest of the league hasn’t had the time to figure out what Seattle is getting right. Maybe it was those injuries to the top Western Conference teams. Whatever it is, Seattle has become the toughest team to beat in the West. That’s what counts in the playoffs.
It’s different for Toronto. They showed that NYCFC was over-matched in the postseason, but it took an unlikely comeback and a dominate extra time to see off Montreal. The message Toronto sends is that no lead is safe. Being good at the end of games is a difference maker in MLS. They’re also a cold weather team in a way that Seattle can’t train for this late in the season. Home field is a decided advantage here.
The weather might give Toronto the disruption they need to win this game. It’s going to take disruption. They need to break up what Seattle now does as well as anybody in MLS. Playing as a group, getting players in position so they don’t waste opportunities. FC Dallas tried to defend in their opening leg. Colorado had issues reshaping around their backup goalkeeper. Barring a late injury, Toronto isn’t likely to give Seattle that kind of opening.
What Seattle is doing well right now is making it less about 1v1 match-ups. It’s not as simple as deciding whether their attacking midfielder has an edge or their forward is in slightly better form. 1v1 they’re probably not better than a loaded Toronto roster. Making that matter less requires coaching and belief, something Seattle has had ever since Schmetzer showed them that it could work. Building that trust in a system is a major difference between Seattle early in the season and now.
Is that enough to win the championship at BMO Field? Maybe, but there’s plenty of nice things to say about Toronto. In a game without a favorite, anything can turn into the difference.