SEATTLE — Major League Soccer is closing out its 24th season this weekend with a rubber match: For the third time in four years, the Seattle Sounders and Toronto F.C. will play for the league championship in M.L.S. Cup.
While the matchup, as well as the stage, is familiar for both the teams and the league, it did catch a few people by surprise. As recently as two weeks ago, neither Seattle, which beat Toronto in the 2016 final, nor Toronto, which flipped the result a year later, was expected to be here.
Neither finalist was particularly dominant during the regular season: Toronto lost nearly as many games as it won, and Seattle was a distant second to Los Angeles F.C. in the Western Conference race. In fact, until the conference finals last week, 2019 was the year of LA.F.C.: The second-year club set a league record for points (72) and tied the 21-year-old mark for goals.
M.L.S.’s new playoff system, which replaced two-game series with single-game matchups in the first two rounds, was bound to increase the chance of upsets. Still, when Toronto knocked off the East’s top seed, New York City F.C., and faced a trip to play the defending champion, Atlanta United, many saw an L.A.F.C.-Atlanta final as inevitable. And then Seattle and Toronto went on the road and flipped the script.
“Certainly they were the favorites,” Seattle Coach Brian Schmetzer said after beating Los Angeles. “And they were deservedly the favorites, because in this new playoff system, they earned the right to play these home games. And winning away from home is a challenge, which is credit again to my team.”
So what should you expect in Sunday’s final? Here’s a look.
Haven’t We Seen This Before?
Yes. Seattle beat Toronto in a penalty-kick shootout to win the 2016 title, only to return to Toronto’s BMO Field a year later and lose the title game, 2-0. Sunday’s winner will not only have bragging rights in the recent series, but will also become the sixth M.L.S. team to win multiple titles.
For the players, though, the past is the past.
“I don’t feel like there’s a true rivalry here,” Seattle midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “I think there’s two teams that mutually respect each other and have the same attitude and intensity and mentality to win trophies, so it’s really cool to see Toronto here again.”
Toronto’s captain, Michael Bradley, played against Roldan in the teams’ previous matchups in the final. He also played down any talk of a rivalry.
“I don’t think anyone’s going to spend too much time thinking about what’s gone on in the past,” Bradley said.
Bradley may have more on the line Sunday than anyone else. If Toronto wins, that would automatically trigger a club option in Bradley’s contract for 2020 worth $6.5 million, according to a report from The Athletic. While Bradley, 32, already has had a lucrative career, with stops in Germany, Italy and England, and remains a fixture on the United States national team, that’s no small amount riding on the result of one match.
Bradley’s tenure with the team has coincided with its rise from the basement of M.L.S. to the league’s elite. After joining M.L.S. in 2007, Toronto failed to make the playoffs in its first eight seasons. Bradley signed on in 2014, part of a wave of investment that included the signing of forward Jozy Altidore, another American international, and Sebastian Giovinco, the since-departed Italian striker.
Along with defender Justin Morrow and midfielder Jonathan Osorio, Bradley and Altidore are the key holdovers from the 2016 and 2017 Toronto teams that reached the final. Altidore may miss this one, though; he has yet to play in the postseason because of a quadriceps injury, and his status for the final was labeled, perhaps optimistically, “questionable” by his team.
A Long-Awaited Final at CenturyLink Field
The Sounders have long prided themselves in having one of the most robust fan bases in M.L.S., ranking either first or second in average attendance (behind only Atlanta the last three seasons) since joining the league in 2009. But this is the first year the Sounders will be the home team in M.L.S. Cup. (The 2009 final was held in Seattle — three years before the league switched to playing the final at the home of the higher seed — but that year’s finalists were Real Salt Lake and the Galaxy).
A capacity crowd of more than 69,000 people is expected at CenturyLink Field on Sunday, an attendance that would rank second for an M.L.S. Cup behind only last year’s final in Atlanta. But in a stadium where the crowd’s roar has been known to set off earthquake monitors, that home-field advantage could be critical.
Toronto Coach Greg Vanney tried to play down the CenturyLink edge this week.
“From our perspective, the fans can’t win games,” he told reporters before the team traveled to Seattle. “What they can do is give support to their team and all that kind of stuff, but I have never seen a fan score a goal or make a tackle.”
For Sounders forward Jordan Morris, who grew up in Seattle, the opportunity is too good to miss.
“I think for me, personally it would be a dream come true to win an M.L.S. Cup in my hometown,” he said. “Obviously we got one before, and that was super special. But to win one here in front of our fans? They deserve it and the city deserves it.”