Twelve teams have been eliminated thus far in the MLS Playoffs, so the final two squads are left to compete for the Cup. Confounding the odds, Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders will be facing each other on November 10th at 3PM in what is a rematch of the 2016 and 2017 MLS Cup games. Fan interest is certainly evident given that CenturyLink Field in Seattle has already sold out, with almost 70,000 raucous supporters of both clubs expected to be in attendance. This figure represents the largest crowd ever to witness a soccer match in Seattle and falls just short of last year’s MLS record of 73,019 at Mercedes-Benz stadium in Atlanta in the Cup final. With the 2016 and 2017 Cup finals being played at BMO Field in Toronto resulting in each club winning once, let’s take a closer look at this year’s teams and predict which team will be hoisting the Cup on November 10th.
How they got here- Finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference table, Toronto begin their journey by beating DC United in a match that saw United tie the game 1-1 in added time, forcing two 15-minute periods. The Reds then scored four times in the first period and beat DCU by a score of 5-1 in a match that saw the final MLS competition for Derby County-bound Wayne Rooney. Their next two matches were played away from home and saw them beat a sluggish NYC FC team followed by last year’s Cup winner Atlanta United by identical 2-1 scores. Penalty kicks proved to be the difference in both games, as Toronto converted a PK in extra time against NYC FC while Josef Martinez of Atlanta had his attempt denied by Reds goalkeeper Quentin Westberg.
What to Expect- While the pundits didn’t expect the Reds to advance in the playoffs beyond DC United, they have made it to the Cup final without the services of star striker Jozy Altidore, who continues to suffer from a strained quadriceps injury. In his absence, the offence has been ably supported by Alejandro Pozuelo and some off-the-bench heroics by veteran Nick DeLeon. Defensively they have employed a bend-but-don’t-break attitude, giving up 19 shots to Atlanta with only five on frame. While garnering about 40% ball possession, they have capitalized on their counter-attacking opportunities against their last two offensive-minded opponents. Look for that style of play to continue, as Toronto manager Greg Vanney will try to reclaim the Reds’ glory years of 2016 and 2017 after finishing two spots above the bottom in the Eastern Conference last season. But without target man Altidore up front in his starting role, will the rest of the squad be able to rise up and bear the Sounders?
How they got here- A second-place finish in the Western Conference table saw the Sounders open their playoff schedule against a 7th place Dallas squad with winger Jordan Morris scoring his third goal of the match in the 114th minute and dispatching a young but spirited Dallas team. Seattle had an easier time against Real Salt Lake, winning 2-0, before traveling to Los Angeles to take on 2019 Supporters Shield winner LAFC. With most expecting LAFC to cruise past the Sounders to the Cup match, Seattle manager Brian Schmetzer employed a smart tactical game plan against the home team, resulting in striker Raul Ruidiaz scoring twice and midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro netting once while providing two assists. LAFC’s league-leading goal-scorer and MLS MVP winner Carlos Vela had one lone shot, as he was effectively denied possession of the ball throughout the match. The resulting 3-1 Sounders win in Los Angeles set the table for the third MLS final match against Toronto in the past four years.
What to Expect- Seattle’s playoff performances haven’t always been pretty, but they have been methodical in their victories, sticking to a game plan and advancing to the final match along the way. Schmetzer’s team will look to control the tempo of the game through his midfield, with Gustav Svensson, Cristian Roldan and Nicolas Lodeiro given that responsibility. It will be up to forwards Morris and Ruidiaz to up the tempo against an aging Toronto defense led by Michael Bradley, Laurent Ciman and Chris Mavinga, slowing them down as the game proceeds. At that point, Lodeiro and Roldan will become more involved in the attack as Seattle takes control of the match.
Prediction- Playing in front of a sellout crowd at CenturyLink Field, coupled with the fatigue of a long MLS season seems to have affected the players of Toronto more than Seattle. While both teams are weary at this stage of the campaigns, the Reds seem to have some injuries that have taken more of a toll on their squad. While Toronto manager Greg Vanney is to be commended for getting his team to the Cup final, look for Seattle to be hoisting the MLS cup on November 10th with a 3-1 win.