It might be the teams and their cities, those lords of lamentable losses from Seattle and the coach-churning, money-burning habitants (zing!) of Toronto, that are driving so much of the buzz. Two electrifying foreign players from opposite sides of the Atlantic drive the attacks directed by quintessential American coaches of different generations. A seemingly interminable 10-day layoff since the last match has, weirdly, helped cleanse the palate for the grand finale, so rich and satisfying it was to gorge on seven goals and 120 minutes of glory and heartbreak.
Most likely no match, no matter how compelling or dramatic, can equal the one that preceded it at the same venue. Yet there’s cause for celebration no matter how good or bad the game is, or which team wins. MLS Cup turns 21 on Saturday night and that is more than sufficient reason for everyone gathered at BMO Field and/or watching on a device of choice to thank the gods of the game an American professional soccer league -- flawed and quirky, volatile and intoxicating -- is alive and well.
Both teams should take the field flush with what has already been accomplished and strive to play their games, come what may. Finals rarely match their hype but since neither team feels deserving of being labeled favorite or underdog, both can approach the game carefully yet confidently.
Of the many subplots to be played out on Saturday here are a few key ones:
NICO VS. SEBA. Combined, they’ve played barely two and a half seasons in MLS, yet in the league dictionary, if there was such a tome, next to the definition of Ideal Designated Player would be the faces of Nicolas Lodeiro and Sebastian Giovinco. In a league that has seen its share of busts and divas and outright disasters, these two men are raising the DP bar just about every time they step on the field.
They differ in style while being equally important. Lodeiro’s immense role in the Sounders’ transformation is the story of 2016 and all Giovinco has done in his two MLS seasons is lay legitimate claim as the league’s numero uno.
“Technically, I think they’re both very good players,” says TFC head coach Greg Vanney. “Are their skill sets the same? Not exactly, though I think there is some crossover between what each of them are capable of doing. Nicolas is more of an attacking midfielder than he is a forward, and Seba is more a forward than he is an attacking midfielder, but there is some clear value that each of them bring to their respective teams.”
Vanney’s counterpart, Brian Schmetzer, cites exhaustive work by the Sounders’ staff during Lodeiro’s tenure at Boca Juniors as justification to convince majority owner Adrian Hanauer that the asking price -- reportedly about $6 million -- for Lodeiro was money well spent.
“He came as advertised,” says Schmetzer. “We had been doing some extensive scouting. We sent three different people to watch him live, we’d been watching him on film. We did a lot of due diligence to make sure he was the right fit for our team but he was almost better than what you saw on TV, better than what you saw on film. From the minute he came onto the game-day field, he’s been tremendous.”
If there’s a difference in temperament, it may play to Seattle’s advantage. At times, Giovinco has drifted out of games in frustration when the balls and referee’s calls don’t bounce his way. So far, Lodeiro has been wired into the flow and though he doesn’t drive every attack he’s always in the hunt for spaces and angles to exploit.
If TFC sticks to its three-man back line, Lodeiro will be constantly probing for the right moment to veer inside or loop around TFC’s outside backs, Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta. They and central partner Drew Moor must also contend with the slashing runs and dribbles of Jordan Morris, whose wondrous rookie season is most deserving of a goal in the final.
Seattle has the speed and guile to take advantage of those open flanks when TFC’s wingbacks, Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow, are pushed upfield to support the attack. Once it fell behind in the first leg of the conference finals against Montreal, TFC had no choice but to bomb forward and survived by overcoming five goals conceded by scoring seven of its own.
Lodeiro’s range and vision necessitate that the TFC outside back on the side of field occupied by Lodeiro must tread cautiously even when his team has the ball. If Lodeiro and Morris get away on counters when the ball turns over in the middle third the Sounders will be very hard to beat.
MOOR IS BETTER. Goalkeeper Clint Irwin and defender Drew Moor left Colorado after the 2015 season and as much as the moves turned out to be win-win, the Rapids fell short of a visit to BMO Field. Finally after a decade riven by angst, TFC’s fans can watch their team in the championship game.
When Moor’s move as a free agent went down a year ago, he said a fresh start in a new city -- as was the case when he moved from FC Dallas to Colorado in 2009 -- is probably just what he needed. He’s flipped the switch all the way to his second MLS Cup final: the 2010 match played at BMO Field and won by the Rapids, 2-1, over FC Dallas in extra time.
In the days leading up to his second appearance in an MLS Cup final, Moor took a look back. He was the second MLS player, following Justin Mapp, to change clubs within the league as a free agent.
“Leaving the Colorado Rapids, a club I loved so much, that were so good to me,” Moor told mlssoccer.com. “My wife and I loved Denver, the people. We were comfortable there. That was the hardest part, choosing to leave a place we loved. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, rejuvenate myself with a new club, refocus in a new city, a different country. It's worked out about like I would have wanted it to.”
With Moor and Irwin and Will Johnson added to the mix, TFC cut down its goals allowed from 58 -- tied for most in the league -- in 2015 to 39, tied for second-fewest. Vanney and his coaching staff were looking for league experience and veteran leadership to anchor the back line. Damien Perquis played the position adequately, but lacked the personality and language skills to communicate and organize.
“Drew checked all the boxes for us in terms of guys who knew how to win in this league, had been to a championship game, and won,” says Vanney. “It made it simple for us that he was a target and through free agency it was an opportunity for us to sell ourselves as a club and what we have here and what we’re doing and what we’re trying to achieve. Drew signed on and we couldn’t have been happier on that day and even happier now.”
REDEMPTION. There’s no other way to put it: Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore are tainted -- in the popular view of many -- by the USA’s troubles under recently dismissed head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Strong performances by both players for TFC, especially in the second half of the season, haven’t borne a lot of weight in the national cyberspace, and great games in the final will only do so much to offset the stigma that many observers have attached to them.
No matter. Both players have gigantic tasks on hand. Bradley is the primary screen in front of the back line and must monitor Lodeiro while keeping an eye on the other midfielders and also help direct traffic. TFC’s midfield touches must be crisp, too, otherwise Ozzie Alonso and Cristian Roldan will vacuum up loose balls and rev up the Seattle attack.
Altidore is in such sharp form he’s nearly impossible to handle one-v-one and by storming through the channels as well as posting up he pulls centerbacks into spots where they don’t want to be. The Sounders have two rugged central pillars, Chad Marshall and Roman Torres, but they will need help when Altidore rumbles in their direction and Giovinco comes buzzing in his wake.
“There aren’t any other distractions for Jozy, now,” says Vanney. “You’re seeing what he’s fully capable of doing. He’s an extraordinary striker with the ability to be powerful, the ability to hold up the ball, the ability to run by people. He’s a very, very good finisher both with his head and his feet, and we’re seeing that really flourish within Jozy, because everything –- from my perspective –- in a very good place for him to just focus on his game and really enjoy himself within our group.”
NEW TV ERA. After seven seasons on ESPN, the MLS Cup final is moving back to network television for the first time since 2008. FOX has poured a lot of money and resources into its MLS coverage and its executives as well as those in league offices will be closely watching the ratings and how widespread is the following on social media. During his State of the League address commissioner Don Garber said the league’s growth on social media increased by more than 90 percent in 2016.
The 2008 final drew a poor 0.6 rating and approximately 900,000 viewers on ABC. The first two MLS Cup finals in 1996 and 1997 drew the highest ratings of 1.4. With significant star power on both teams, a long buildup to the game and a riveting second leg to the Toronto FC-Montreal conference final setting the table for the first MLS Cup final played and broadcast on a Saturday night, this game is a vital barometer of where MLS is as a league and a sporting attraction.