Ahead of the 2017 MLS Cup final between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, MLSsoccer.com breaks down the two championship finalists position-by-position. The two teams will face off on December 9 (4 pm ET; ESPN and UniMás in USA; TSN and TVAS in Canada).
Clint Irwin was the starter between the pipes for TFC last season, but he lost his job to Alex Bono this season after suffering an injury. The 23-year-old started 28 games during the regular season and all four Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoff matches. Bono has rarely had to make spectacular saves behind an excellent Toronto defense but he has shown that he can be relied upon to make the needed ones.
We all know what Stefan Frei can do in the biggest possible moments. He’s the main reason why Seattle kept a clean sheet in last year's final and has followed that performance up with a solid 2017.
We’re going to focus on Toronto's three center backs in this space. The big addition this season came when they brought in Chris Mavinga at the left center back spot. The Frenchman has provided quality 1v1 defensive play and technical ability on the ball that Nick Hagglund was unable to produce last season. Drew Moor is the vocal leader of the defense while Eriq Zavaleta is better with the ball on his foot than defending in space.
Seattle’s historic run on defense is largely due to the play of their veteran center back duo. Chad Marshall and Roman Torres aren’t known for their speed, but both are always in the right spot and rarely let their lack of pace prohibit them from making critical tackles. They are also key in attacking and defending set pieces. Kelvin Leerdam has provided solidity at right back since joining the team, playing well defensively while getting forward on occasion. Nouhou Tolo is still a raw player at left back who can get caught up the field, but his speed is a threat to any defense.
Toronto’s five-man midfield is probably the best in the league. Justin Morrow was a Best XI player at left wingback while either Steven Beitashour (defending) or Nicolas Hasler (attacking) can provide quality in specific areas on the right. Michael Bradley is the best defensive midfielder in the league and Victor Vazquez’ creativity has been the difference in making this the best team in MLS history. Greg Vanney will have a decision to make whether he wants a ball circulator/athlete (Marky Delgado) or an attacking piece (Jonathan Osorio) at the No. 8.
This group has been a revolving door all season but it looks like three of the four spots are settled for Saturday. Joevin Jones has made the left winger spot his own providing width and athleticism, without being goal dangerous. Gustav Svensson has been a veteran presence at the d-mid spot in the absence of Osvaldo Alonso, while Cristian Roldan has broken through to become a standard-bearer at the No. 8 spot. Nicolas Lodeiro is the main creative hub for the Sounders on the right wing and has produced two assists in the playoffs despite being shuffled between different positions in the postseason.
Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco have not produced at their usual levels in the playoffs, partly due to one-match suspensions, but they are undoubtedly the top forward pair in the league. Altidore will be nursing an injury heading into the match, but their quality will be needed to break down the Sounders defense.
Clint Dempsey has returned in 2017 to provide a clinical presence in front of net for Brian Schmetzer’s team. Dempsey has three goals in the playoffs to lead the league and will be champing at the bit to win an MLS Cup while on the field. Will Bruin has been a revelation at forward, playing the best he’s ever played at exactly the right time. Bruin is not known for his physical play but his runs and improved touch have helped collect two goals and two assists in the playoffs.
TFC are not only the best regular season team in MLS history but also probably the deepest team in MLS history. They boast a Panamanian international (Armando Cooper), 2016 MLS Cup final starters (Clint Irwin, Hagglund, Osorio), a top right wingback (Hasler or Beitashour) and a player with an incredible goalscoring rate (Tosaint Ricketts) on their bench.
Seattle’s bench is bolstered by Alonso and Morris, who would be starting if they entered this match at 100 percent. Schmetzer can turn to Alonso to hold onto a lead or Morris if they will need a goal. Victor Rodriguez is likely to start on the sidelines as well, and his technical ability could help the Sounders if they are down.
Greg Vanney won Coach of the Year, and for good reason. Though his side has considerable talent, Vanney was able to get the most out of them on their way to the most points in the regular season. The Red Bulls and Crew SC were able to throw them off their game somewhat, but Vanney made the crucial tactical changes that were needed against Columbus to advance to the MLS Cup final.
Brian Schmetzer has had to deal with a rash of injuries in 2017, but that did not stop him from having his team peak at the exact right time. He’s placed Roldan in all the right spots and has dealt with the loss of two of the three best players (Alonso, Jordan Morris) from the 2016 team in exceptional fashion.
The Supporters’-Shield winners have not been impressive in the playoffs so far, but have done enough to reach the final. The Red Bulls and Crew SC showed the blueprint for what can be done to shutdown a historic TFC attack but the quality of the players all over the field should show through against Seattle.
Seattle’s momentum through the playoffs can not be denied and their attack is more potent this season with the inclusion of Dempsey. That plus adds to their sterling defensive record, which has already reached historic levels. Players like Bruin and Nouhou will be counted on to come up big in this match and if they do, they can match TFC’s overall quality.