The 2019 Major League Soccer title is up for grabs on Sunday, and for the third time in four years, Toronto FC will take on the Seattle Sounders.
Who has the advantage heading into part three of this rivalry? On paper, it looks pretty darn even. But there is one glaring piece of leverage that may just tip this game to one side.
The similarities in how the teams got to this point are quite remarkable.
Seattle came into the Western Conference finals against Los Angeles FC a massive underdog as LA was the league juggernaut this season, capturing the Supports Shield (best record) and setting goal-scoring and defensive records.
I broke down what Seattle needed to do to slay the giant, and the Sounders pulled it off perfectly.
They played incredibly sound defense, took league-MVP Carlos Vela out of the game, and scored three of the nicest goals you’ll see. No one thought they could do it, and they shocked all of Major League Soccer.
Seattle needed to play their best game of the season, and they certainly came to do just that. They gave up an early goal on a beautiful free-kick from Eduard Atuesta, but they were not to be deterred.
Raul Ruidiaz answered five minutes later when he powered home a shot after alluding two defenders to tie the score. From there Seattle clamped down their defense, scored two more outstanding goals, weathered the storm in the final minutes, and walked out of LA with a 3-1 stunner.
Head coach Brian Schmetzer and staff put together a stellar game plan, and the team executed it to perfection. No one can say they didn’t deserve to win the game and punch their ticket to the MLS Cup.
But who would they be playing?
Not to be outdone, Toronto FC, the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, upset their opponent as well in the conference finals to get another shot at the Sounders and the MLS Cup. A 2-1 road victory over the defending cup champions and No. 2 seed Atlanta United took some stellar defensive work and some clinical goal scoring.
Toronto was outshot 18 to 4. In soccer that is a huge discrepancy. And with two of those shots going in goal, you don’t have to be a mathematician to see that is a winning formula.
Atlanta had the majority of the possession (59% to 41%) throughout the game and was dangerous from the opening whistle. Toronto could only foul (16 total) to stop the onslaught and relieve some of the pressure. It looked to be Atlanta’s night.
United got an early goal in the fourth minute and appeared to be on their way to victory when they were awarded a penalty kick just six minutes later. However, Toronto goalkeeper, Quentin Westberg, came to the rescue, saved Josef Martinez’s attempt, and the Canadian side finally had hope.
More relief came just four minutes after the penalty save when Toronto equalized off a nifty counterattack, and suddenly the game was tied 1-1 after just 14 minutes of play.
Despite Atlanta peppering their opponent’s goal with shots deep into the game, it was Toronto that found the game-winner on a world-class strike from Nick DeLeon late in the game.
Toronto, like Seattle, managed to weather the storm in the final minutes and saw the game out. It was time to celebrate.
As I stated earlier, this will be the third time in four years these two teams will meet for the league title. Those first two meetings were both played in chilly Toronto. In 2016 Seattle prevailed in penalty kicks (5-4) after the game and overtime finished 0-0.
In 2017 the rematch went Toronto’s way as they dominated the Sounders and won 2-0.
The rosters for both teams this year are pretty evenly matched, and the ten days between the conference finals and the championship game should leave both teams healthy and rested for the big game. Toronto center-back, Omar Gonzalez, should return, and Seattle’s Roman Torres and winger Victor Rodriquez will also benefit from the long lay-off.
It will be interesting to see if Toronto’s star forward, Jozy Altidore, will factor into this game. He said early this week it would be a “miracle” if he were able to play, following a quadriceps injury suffered in the regular-season finale. Is he being truthful or just demonstrating a little gamesmanship from a veteran player? We’ll see.
The reward for finishing higher up in the league standings lands the MLS Cup at Century Link field in Seattle, and this, in my opinion, tips this game in favor of the Sounders.
Seattle is expecting a sold-out crowd of 70,000 for this game, and it will be loud. As a season-ticket holder, I can tell you firsthand; the stadium will be rocking.
The Sounders were second in the league this year in average attendance (40,247) and boast one of the most active and vocal supporters’ sections in all the league.
Toronto benefitted greatly when hosting the first two matchups, and Seattle was fortunate to win that first game. But there is no place like “The Clink” for a Sounders’ match.
The team is 5-2-1 at home and 10-4-2 overall all-time against Toronto. Also of note, the Sounders beat them in their one regular-season meeting in 2019, 3-2 in Seattle.
I foresee this game being a tightly contested match with both teams looking to play solid defense and hoping for their chances on goal to come out of counterattacks.
Both squads will be eager to keep possession and limit costly turnovers. I expect both head coaches, Bob Bradley for Toronto and Brian Schmetzer for the Sounders, to have conservative game plans to start and put lots of players behind the ball.
A tight match means each team will need to be clinical when they are able to create chances in the final third of the field. Both teams did a tremendous job in their conference final victories, and we should see more of that on Sunday.
The game is for all the marbles, so tensions will be high. The team that can minimize mistakes and hold on to the ball will prevail. A slight edge goes to Seattle in this area, and with a home-field advantage, I see the Sounders hoisting the trophy on Sunday afternoon.
I predict a 1-0 or 2-1 game but wouldn’t be surprised if an early goal opens up the game, and goals start coming. Overtime isn’t out of the question either.
It has been a very entertaining season throughout Major League Soccer, so let’s hope we get one more game!