From the very dawn of the league, when eight of its 10 member teams qualified, the MLS postseason has been surprising by design – an inclusive but unpredictable party where little can be taken for granted. Over the decades Cinderellas have gotten nearly as many invites to the big ball as princesses.
No more gate-crashing in 2017, however.
Just over 24 hours after Toronto FC held their nerve to vanquish Columbus, the defending-champion Seattle Sounders sent home Houston, the season’s final underdogs, on Thursday night with a coolly clinical 3-0 Western Conference Championship win (5-0 aggregate) to deliver an MLS Cup rematch. Next Saturday's contest will mark the third time in MLS history that the same two teams have met in consecutive finals.
And it’s only a fair reflection of the year at large. TFC now stand one victory short of an unprecedented treble campaign, most recently displaying grit to match their luxurious array of Designated Player and Targeted Allocation Money talent. Meanwhile Seattle are a markedly improved package from 2016 and have fully earned the right to defend their trophy, finding their top gear down the stretch.
This duo is the class of the league at present, in ambition, scale and infrastructure as well as results on the field. They boast two of the biggest budgets, most advanced sports science departments, industry-leading analytics technology and large, vibrant fanbases.
Next week’s winner could gain the inside track on staking out an era of MLS primacy not seen since David Beckham’s prime in LA.
“They deserve to be up there,” said NYCFC winger and 2015 MLS Cup winner Rodney Wallace of this year’s pairing in his guest spot on MLSsoccer’s Postgame Central show. That public conferring of legitimacy from a rival and peer speaks volumes about what Seattle and Toronto have shown.
Shield winners vs. incumbent Cup champs: This is how Don King and the flamboyant boxing promoters of yore would’ve drawn up their ideal title card.
Seattle are already the reigning champs thanks to last fall’s frantic, late-developing climb from the West basement to playoff glory. But with a full season under the command of coach Brian Schmetzer and the addition of game-changing role players like Victor Rodriguez, Kelvin Leerdam, Will Bruin and Harry Shipp, a steadily accelerating collective understanding has pushed the Sounders to a new level, as the shorthanded Dynamo were unfortunate witnesses to in Leg 2.
Many – though by the looks of the MLS Coach of the Year vote, probably still not enough – of my media colleagues have pointed to the role of identity in Wilmer Cabrera’s dramatic turnaround job in Houston. La Naranja had a plan this year, and even if it sputtered out of ideas a few steps before the end of their road, it provides Cabrera & Co. with a framework for future progression.
But Schmetzer, too, has done similar and remarkable work, turning the page on the chaotic denouement of the Sigi Schmid era with a steady hand on the rudder and a keen soccer brain that he cleverly conceals within a paternal, almost geeky bearing reminiscent of a busy middle-aged IT professional.
Seeking, then settling on a system that makes the most out of the varied and occasionally overlapping skillsets of Bruin, the ageless Clint Dempsey, cerebral conductor Nico Lodeiro, Joevin Jones and the rest of the Rave Green’s deep roster, Schmetzer has his team playing expansive soccer. They can pass and move, they can press, they can sit in – the past year has brought tangible steps forward for their group, and most importantly a sense of self.
At full flow, the Sounders are capable of both building and controlling play as well as slashing forward on the counter, an area where they gave Houston fits in the crucial opening stages on Thursday. Providing relentless width, speed, range and incision, Jones was particularly devastating in this series. Though they’ll miss him after he departs for German side Darmstadt over the winter, it’s to the club’s credit that a line of similar wing flyers like Leerdam and Nouhou Tolo have followed in Jones’ wake. The system has come to rely on them.
Seattle have batted aside their postseason adversaries with minimal fuss; like TFC, they usually just field too many weapons for opponents to contend with at once. And all of this is presently clicking along in the injury-enforced absences of midfield enforcer Osvaldo Alonso and Jordan Morris, the Homegrown attacker who finally made his return to the field on Thursday and will hope to play supersub at MLS Cup.
So back to BMO Field they go, hoping to continue a strange quirk of MLS Cup history: No losing team has ever gotten revenge on their victors in a rematch game.
Extending that run will take another Herculean effort at TFC’s house, one of the league’s louder and more imposing venues. But it won’t feel out of reach for this year’s Sounders, the next evolution of a likable bunch eager to prove that ‘16 was no mere shot in the dark.
TFC have some points to prove of their own, and ghosts to exorcise. It already feels like ambition, not fear, will be the spark for a far more memorable affair than the freezing, scoreless chess match that was last year’s final.
That’s something for everyone to celebrate. Game on, fellas.