Seattle Sounders hosting Toronto FC may not have been the MLS Cup that most expected, but their third final meeting in four years is a fitting end to the decade.
An MLS Cup final between Los Angeles FC and Atlanta United would have been a fitting end to the 2019 season. After all, LAFC were the Supporters’ Shield winners who had dominated Major League Soccer from the very first week of the season, while the Five Stripes were the defending MLS Cup champions and 2019 U.S. Open Cup champs, considered the only team capable of taking down the Californians.
A dramatic change in narrative occurred over the conference finals, though, with both Atlanta United and LAFC suffering surprise home defeats.
Instead, we have an MLS Cup final between the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC. It’s a matchup they few would have predicted when the playoffs bracket was first published. It is, however, the third time in four years that these two clubs have met at this stage of the season, in MLS’s showpiece match.
This has become the unlikeliest of defining fixtures for North American soccer in recent times. There is no geographical reason for Seattle and TFC to be rivals, but circumstances have made them so.
This is reflected in the demand there has been for tickets to this fixture. It took the Sounders around 20 minutes to sell about 70,000 tickets for Sunday making this the hottest ticket in the franchise’s history. CenturyLink Field has hosted more than a few bumper crowds over the years, but nothing like this. If you want to find a way in, you’ll need to pay the average resale price of $622 for a ticket.
Atlanta United and Los Angeles FC are widely viewed as MLS’s model clubs, but for all that they have done to set a new precedent in terms of their signings and match-day experience, the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC have good claims to have been earlier standard-bearers in those areas.
Seattle, with signings like Clint Dempsey, were packing an NFL stadium before Atlanta made it their norm. Toronto inked international stars like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco before Michael’s father built his star-studded juggernaut in LA.
They have also, in their current form, set an example for others to follow in their own way. Neither boast a Josef Martinez or a Carlos Vela, but they have been shrewd in their cultivation of winning teams.
Having overcome Seattle to win MLS Cup in 2017, the 2018 season was one to forget for TFC as they missed out on the playoffs altogether. At that point it seemed that Greg Vanney’s team was on the decline, especially after the exit of top scorer and spiritual leader Giovinco just weeks before the start of the new season.
The signing of Alejandro Pozuelo filled that void left by Giovinco, though, and Vanney has managed to eke even more from this generation of players despite a dip in the middle of the year. Toronto FC have built momentum at just the right time and know how to handle the big occasion having been here before.
Similarities can be drawn to the Seattle Sounders with regards to many of these traits. They too have built momentum at just the right time of the season and have a group of players that has been effectively and shrewdly evolved since the last time they made the MLS Cup final two years ago.
Brian Schmetzer is far from the biggest name in MLS management, but few are as successful at earning big results as the 57-year-old. He isn’t a Bob Bradley or a Tata Martino or even a Frank de Boer, but Schmetzer has time and time again proved himself at the top level of the North American game. He can do so once more time this weekend.
The 2019 MLS season had been building for so long up to a year-defining clash between Atlanta United and LAFC that the shift in narrative has left some neutral observers disappointed. But there’s plenty to draw the attention in the match-up between the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC.
In fact, this game might be a better reflection of this era of MLS.