It all boils down to this: the Eastern Conference champs vs. Western Conference Champs, winner take all. Toronto FC vs Seattle Sounders, both in the final for the first time in both their histories, seek the ultimate MLS prize. But the journey’s both teams endured to get here couldn’t have been more different.
Often touted as an early pick to win the Eastern Conference in pre-season, Toronto fell just short of that target, but had an impressive season, only finishing 4 points behind leaders New York Red Bulls in what was their strongest season yet. Having reached the playoffs for only a 2nd time, and not previously scored in the playoffs, they now find themselves at the summit, scoring 17 goals in 5 games. That alone is enough for Seattle to be weary of.
Greg Vanney’s side have 2 of the best strikers the MLS has to offer in Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, the former notching up a combined goal/assist high of 17/15 respectively, and the latter’s recent run of form one of the most impressive in the league.
Altidore’s form in the play-offs has been the talk of the town, nae the whole country, having scored in every play-off match (5 in 5), but before August it was oh so different. After having to settle being an unused substitute in the 2-1 loss to San Jose on July 16th and still yet to score, his first goal of the 2016 season came on July 31st on matchday 11, the 3-0 victory over Columbus Crew. He finished the regular season on 10 goals, with 8 coming in the final 10 games, including a stirring performance in the 3-3 thriller against his former club New York Red Bulls.
He is now a man playing with a point to prove following a dismal time at previous club Sunderland in the Premier League, having been demoted to the U21 side, and his return to MLS and the US national team has culminated in Altidore being named the U.S. Soccer Player of the Year 2016.
Sebastian Giovinco is of course just as, if not more deadly than his strike partner, certainly the more naturally gifted of the 2, but Altidore’s strength and determination could well prove to be Seattle’s undoing. He is not to be underestimated.
On the same day Jozy Altidore bagged his first goal of the 2016 campaign, Seattle’s campaign as a whole looked dead and buried. 1 point from last place in the Western Conference with 21 points from 21 games, Seattle had fired the only coach they have every had, Sigi Schmid, following the abysmal 3-0 defeat to Sporting Kansas City the previous week. Assistant Brian Schmetzer was brought in as interim coach, and Uruguay international Nicolas Lodeiro was brought in on a designated play contract. A record of W8-L2-D4 followed to propel the Sounders into 4th place and cement a place in the play-offs.
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet” data-lang=”en”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Pretty cool graphic of each <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/MLS?src=hash”>#MLS</a> team's path on <a href=”https://twitter.com/FS1″>@FS1</a> going into <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/DecisionDay?src=hash”>#DecisionDay</a>. Here's the Western Conference. Note the Seattle Sounders. <a href=”https://t.co/CMeEDEfWtl”>pic.twitter.com/CMeEDEfWtl</a></p>— Caitlin Murray (@caitlinmurr) <a href=”https://twitter.com/caitlinmurr/status/790246393621327873″>October 23, 2016</a></blockquote>
Brian Schmetzer, named permanent coach following Seattle’s incredible demolition of Supporters Shield winners FC Dallas in the Western Conference Semi-final 1st leg, proved his worth with a excellent combination of tactics and, more importantly, motivation. They have rookie of the year Jordan Morris, who bagged 12 goals in his first ever season, and the aforementioned Lodeiro has proved to be a master-stoke signing, who play-making skills and work rate (not to mention 8 assists and 4 goals of his own) have been the catalyst for Seattle’s incredible turnaround.
With home advantage siding with Toronto due to having the better regular season record (a rule i will never understand given the broken schedule and both sides’ league tallies being separate), i expect Toronto to be the more confident of the two sides. Seattle won’t go lying down, and being the only side to beat Colorado on their own turf all year when a win wasn’t even needed is testament to Brian Schmetzer’s reinvigorated team.
One thing is for sure: it will be cold, it will be loud, and hopefully, one hell of a final.