By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 25, 2019) US Soccer Players - Toronto FC faced the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup final for two consecutive seasons in 2017 and 2018. The Sounders prevailed the first time, Toronto FC the second. That quirk of fate ties the two clubs together. That's how history works.
Nothing will change the connection between the two clubs in the MLS Cup final record books. The Reds and the Sounders also share the credit for bringing about a new atmosphere in MLS fandom. Toronto exploded on the scene in 2007 with what "European-stye support". The Sounders follow two years later with crowds last seen in the earliest days of the league. MLS won ground in the battle for sports relevance in two major North American cities thanks to the success of Toronto FC and the Sounders.
The fans who made Seattle and Toronto two of the best-supported clubs in MLS are basking in the warm glow of playoff success heading into the weekend. Both advanced to their respective conference finals with wins on Wednesday night. It's the first time both teams have reached that stage since they ended up meeting in the 2018 MLS Cup.
There's plenty of reason to believe that another MLS Cup matchup is in the offing for both sides. Seattle's win over Real Salt Lake represented a step forward following the narrow, extra-time win over FC Dallas in the first round of the playoffs. If not for Nick Rimando in net, the Sounders might have coasted to the victory.
It's a good sign for Seattle going into the conference final against LAFC that star players are stepping up to carry the load. In the win over FC Dallas, it was Jordan Morris who lifted the side with a trio of goals, including the winner in extra time. Winning in the postseason is a lot easier when the best attacking players in a given team are in-form and delivering in the biggest moments.
Morris's hat trick came just a day after he won the MLS Comeback Player of the Year award. The US international bounced back from a season-ending knee injury in 2018 with 10 goals for the Sounders in 2019. Many of those goals came through a combination of talent and sheer effort. Against FC Dallas, Morris was simply hungrier and better positioned than the defenders around him.
The Sounders got a goal from an unlikely source, Gustav Svensson, to take the lead against RSL. Svensson hadn't scored in a year before deftly flicking a ball past Rimando from a corner kick 15 minutes into the second half. Nicolas Lodeiro hit the frame in the first five minutes of the game. It looked like he might not find another chance as good, but he was the one that iced the match in the 81st minute.
Lodeiro famously helped push the Sounders to the title back in 2016 when he joined in the summer. Three years later, he remains the club's most important attacking piece. He's part of a well-balanced attack that is helping to make up for a deficient defense this season. Lodeiro is not as celebrated as other key components to MLS attacks, but he has a similar knack for popping up in big games.
The playoffs make heroes out of unlikely players. The eventual champions tend to lean on the contributions of their best and brightest.
What makes Seattle unique as a club is the ability to shift that responsibility across the years. The Sounders have never missed the playoffs since arriving in MLS back in 2009 and are consistently considered contenders when new seasons begin. That's a credit to the culture of the club. Good scouting and recruitment on top of enough ambition to spend make the Sounder a perennial force in a league that often humbles successful teams.
Humbling happened to Toronto in 2018. The season after the club's triumphant triple-trophy season saw the Reds drop out of the playoff places through a combination of schedule congestion and debilitating injuries. In that particular way that MLS makes fools out of champions, the weight of dynasty-building proved to be too much for Toronto.
The club is back in the playoffs this year. Toronto might not have Seattle's uninterrupted run of playoff qualification, but they retain the previous levels of ambition. No one spends more money than Toronto. That's largely a function of the investment the team made in Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, but there's quality throughout the rest of the roster.
It was Alejandro Pozuelo as the hero at Citi Field. Pozuelo was the choice to replace Sebastian Giovinco, a two-time MVP who accounted for the best all-around attacking season in MLS history before Carlos Vela arrives in Los Angeles. Pozuelo isn't Giovinco, but he can change a game with his slickness on the ball and knack for finding shots.
Playoff margins, especially with the new single-elimination format, means there's a premium on taking advantage of the opponents' mistakes. Toronto was the better team against NYCFC, but it was Pozuelo's wits and effort, forcing an error by Maxime Chanot, that led to the opening goal.
For a club that was without Altidore due to injury, Pozuelo's goalscoring was necessary. No one would have feigned surprise if TFC failed on the road in strange conditions without their top striker. Instead, Pozuelo made sure that Altidore's absence wasn't an excuse. He then put the game away with an audacious chipped penalty just a few minutes from the final whistle.
On paper, both the Sounders and Toronto FC are underdogs against their conference final opponents. They'll be playing on the road. In the case of Toronto, injuries are a factor in their changes to secure a return to the championship game. The odds of both advancing are slim. If they do, it will be different this time. Seattle collected more points in the regular season, so Seattle would host the Reds at CenturyLink Field. Both previous editions of the final matchup happened at BMO Field. It would be fitting for a rubber match.
Will history repeat itself? Or was 2017 and 2018 a brief window of serendipity that put these two teams together? Seattle remains in the fight, capable of a playoff run every year. Toronto FC is back, navigating a rash of injuries and still will a chance to reclaim a place among the East's elite. Simply put, it could happen.
More From Jason Davis:
- Doing more than making the playoffs
- Ike Opara is the MLS Defender of the Year
- MLS needs to fix the Rookie of the Year award
- MLS teams in need of a Cup run
Photo by Tony Quinn - ISIPhotos.com