To remind you: a game played in inhospitably arctic weather, a game that lasted 120 minutes, a game that featured no goals at all but did feature 40 fouls, a game that contained absolutely nothing worth remembering, a game that was abominably refereed by Alan Kelly, a game that lurched into the farcical shootout that crowned Seattle as the “winners.” Seattle, MLS champions -- without managing a single shot on target in the final.
There was a reason for all that negativity. Fear. Toronto was scared of the tremendously influential play of Seattle’s Uruguayan midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro. And Seattle (lacking their star Clint Dempsey) trembled at the thought of the dynamism and goalscoring of Toronto’s Italian Sebastian Giovinco.
It was fear that dominated the tactics. Toronto determined to block Lodeiro’s wiles, while Seattle were making sure Giovinco didn’t get a look in. Both players received more than their share of fouls (with referee Kelly permitting far too much physical play). Two frightened teams, each concentrating on what they saw as a vital defensive tactic. An approach that ended up showing that neither team was capable of doing that and, at the same time, playing anything that looked like decent attacking soccer.
Toronto at least tried to attack -- as the home team should -- but got nowhere. The 2016 MLS final was surely a game to forget. It may not have been the worst ever, but it was surely the most reprehensible in that its scandalously bad soccer was the direct result of deliberate tactics.
So that’s the deja vu part. Not very encouraging. Are there any reasons for hoping that next week’s game will be any better? Oh yes. For a start, it’s difficult to imagine that the game could possibly be as bad as last year’s dismal display. Common sense (or am I talking of just plain hope?) demands that it must be an improvement.
I also feel reasonably confident that, whoever the referee may be, he cannot be as bad as Kelly was last year. To be clear: Kelly did not “ruin the game” -- that was done by the coaches and their tactics. But it was Kelly’s duty to rescue the game, to make it clear that he would not permit the tactical fouling of key players. He never did that -- rather the opposite, he allowed it to flourish, without punishing the offenders.
About half of the players who were in last year’s final will be back, and this time Seattle will have Dempsey. Toronto have undoubtedly been strengthened by the addition of Spanish midfielder Victor Vazquez, who brings order and calmness to its attacking play -- something glaringly lacking last year.
Seattle also have a new Spanish midfielder -- very new, for Victor Rodriguez has only had time to play 10 games for his new team. Apart from those two Victors, little of note has happened to boost the goalscoring ability that was so lamentably lacking last year. The Sounders whizz-kid Jordan Morris has slumped quite badly (three goals in 24 games) and been injured, losing his place to the rather more robust Will Bruin.
But Lodeiro and Giovinco are both more than capable of lighting up any game. It would be shameful beyond endurance if either team were to repeat last year’s tactics of trying to man-mark (it means close physical attention) those players out of the game. Tactics that also pretty well ensure a turgid, constipated game with little by way of flowing soccer.
I found it decidedly depressing to listen to Seattle’s goalkeeper Stefan Frei going on about the importance of “clean sheets” (another stupid Brit term -- what’s wrong with shutouts, eh?). Frankly, who cares about shutouts, apart from goalkeepers looking at their stats (stats that include a considerable contribution from their defensive colleagues, anyway)?
I heartily disapprove of teams that set shutouts as a serious concern. Precisely the sort of thinking that leads to vapid 1-0 wins, and to the benighted shootout.
There are quite a few reasons, then, to feel apprehensive about the 2017 MLS Cup Final. But there are also plenty of strong reasons to feel optimistic. They are: Nicolas Lodeiro, Sebastian Giovinco, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Victor Vazquez, Cristian Roldan, Michael Bradley, Victor Rodriguez.
Surely there is enough guile, creativity, ball-skill and goalscoring ability there to ensure that we get the sort of game to honor the occasion, a game that we can watch -- and recall -- with delight?