Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders: the Trilogy

After a tumultuous road to the MLS Cup Final, Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders face off in the finals for the third time in...

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It was a cagey 60 minutes for the crowd watching the MLS Eastern Conference Championship between Toronto FC (4th seed) and Atlanta United (2nd seed). Atlanta’s Julian Gressel put the home side ahead as early as the fifth minute. Shortly afterwards, Michael Bradley conceded a penalty. However, Toronto goalkeeper Quentin Westberg kept Toronto in the match by saving the kick, and the visitors tied thanks to Nicolas Benezet’s fine curled effort from the edge of the box. The teams were then level at 1-1 since the 14th minute and the match was nearing its end. Suddenly, Toronto FC was on the offensive once again, with substitute Nick DeLeon on the ball. Atlanta’s defense stood still as DeLeon skillfully turned out of pressure and slammed a screamer into the top left of the net from 25 yards out. The crowd woke up in an uproar as Toronto became the champions of the East, sealing a 2-1 win.

Toronto’s journey, however, was far from over. The Seattle Sounders had conquered Los Angeles FC in a 3-1 defeat the previous day, securing their position in the 24th MLS Cup Final. Toronto will have to face the Sounders for the third time in the past four years in the final. Since each team won one of their two previous games in the 2016 and 2017 MLS finals and both teams failed to make the final last year, this match will be the culmination of one of MLS’s greatest trilogies.

But how did Toronto and the Sounders get here, and who will win the final battle on November 10th?

The Sounders entered the first round of the playoffs confident with a second place finish in the Western Conference. They started off the spectacular match against FC Dallas (7th seed) with a 2 goal lead driven by recent transfer Raúl Ruidíaz, blasting a distanced shot that skipped into the goal, and USA international Jordan Morris, hitting a left-footed finish, within the first 20 minutes. Dallas equalized with an excellent touch past the last defender by Reggie Cannon, tapping the ball in at close range. Dallas’ Matt Hedges leveled the match with a header off a corner early in the second half, only to have Morris tap in his second goal for the Sounders off a corner 10 minutes later. Down 3-2, Bryan Acosta hurled Dallas back into the match with a back-post header, tying the game 3-3 and bringing it to extra time. Morris completed the game with a hat-trick seven minutes before the final whistle blew for penalties, eliminating FC Dallas from the playoffs.

After a narrow first round win, the Sounders faced Salt Lake City (3rd seed). This match was not nearly as close: no team scored until the second half, when the Sounders sealed a 2-0 victory over Salt Lake City. Nick Rimando had several fantastic saves in the last game of his career, but Gustav Svensson was able to put Seattle in the lead with a near-post header off a corner kick. Ruidíaz secured the 2-0 win with a long distance banger into the side net and Salt Lake City finished the game with ten players after Everton Luiz made a nasty slide into Svensson and received a red card.

The Sounders had made it to the Western Conference Final against Los Angeles FC (1st seed) and would not waste this opportunity. LAFC had brutally beaten the Sounders in front of their own fans during the regular season, winning 4-1 in April. LAFC started strong with a ranged freekick by midfielder Eduard Atuesta, taking the lead. Soon after, Sounders’ Ruidíaz took advantage of center back Eddie Segura’s rushed tackle with a beautiful turn, followed by a clinical finish. Nicolas Lodeiro swiftly brought the Sounders another goal with a low shot from outside the box. Later on in the second half, LAFC slipped up on a clearance giving the ball out wide to Lodeiro, who found Ruidíaz at the top of the box for the finish. The Sounders had defeated the odds and beaten LAFC 3-1, booking their place in the final once again.

Similarly to the Sounders, Toronto failed to reach the 2018 MLS Cup Final but excelled this season. They began their playoff journey facing D.C. United (5th seed) in the first round. Toronto first gained the lead with Marky Delgado’s rebound off a poor save by D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who failed to catch Alejandro Pozuelo’s shot. D.C. put in all of their efforts until the 92nd minute, when Lucas Rodriguez tapped the ball in from a corner, pushing the match into extra time. D.C.’s excitement and hopes came to a cruel end in extra time, with Richie Laryea’s finish, putting Toronto up 2-1. Toronto was not ready to end the game, however: Jonathan Osorio added two goals within eight minutes, one off a corner and another from the top of the box. To complete the rout of D.C., DeLeon scored a sensational curler off the right corner of the crossbar.

Toronto’s next challenge was against New York City FC (1st seed) in the semifinals. Toronto began the first half with plenty of chances, allowing NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson to rack up saves. The first half went by without goals, but in the first two minutes of the second half, Maxime Chanot had a mishap in the box with a poor header, allowing Pozuelo to seize the opportunity, bringing Toronto up 1-0. NYCFC continued fighting through the half until Ismael Tajouri-Shradi brought the equalizer from a late run into a cross, finishing into the far post. Their momentum did not last long: NYCFC’s Ronald Matarrita allowed a penalty in the final moments of the match, sweeping Laryea off his feet in the box. Once Pozuelo buried the penalty with a chip down the middle, NYCFC fans knew they had practically taken themselves out of the playoffs due to mistakes.

Once Toronto defeated Atlanta in the Eastern Conference final, the two contenders for the MLS Cup final were set. The Sounders will go into the match on November 10th as slight favorites since they are playing at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. The Sounders, one of the most passionately supported clubs in the MLS, had their record attendance in 2013 with a turnout of 67,000 spectators for a match against local rival Portland Timbers. This time, with tickets for the match already sold out, there will be over 69,000 fans in the stadium, the home of the NFL team, the Seattle Seahawks.

In their previous MLS final matchups against each other, Toronto lost 5-4 in penalties after a 0-0 game in 2016 and the Sounders lost 2-0 in 2017. The only match this year between the two came in June, when Seattle defeated Toronto 3-2 at CenturyLink Field. However, Will Bruin, the Sounders’ top goalscorer that night, suffered an ACL injury shortly afterwards, and is out for the season. USA international striker Jozy Altidore, who scored both goals for Toronto that game, has also been injured recently, but the team doctors are confident that he will be fit enough to play a part in the final. They are also hoping that defender Omar Gonzalez will be sufficiently recovered to take his position in the starting lineup.

Both teams will feature a number of players who participated in the previous two MLS Cup Finals between these two teams. Eight of the Toronto squad are still with the team, while six of the Seattle team that lifted the trophy in 2016 are still on the club’s rosterBradley, one of Toronto’s Designated Players, is in the final year of his contract. The highest paid player in the MLS last season behind Zlatan Ibrahimovich, with a salary of $6.5 million a year, Bradley has a clause in his current contract stating that, if Toronto wins the MLS Cup, he must commit to the club for at least one more season.

No matter the outcome, fans, whether watching the game at the stadium or on T.V., should not expect a feast of goals in the final. The first two finals between the teams were tight affairs, and this match will likely be no different. Both sides owed their playoff successes to disciplined defenses and the ability to take advantage of counter attacks. The MLS Cup Final may come down to who makes the fewest mistakes, or which players are able to capitalize on the few chances likely to be presented.