TORONTO – As Toronto FC prepare for a rematch against the Seattle Sounders in the 2017 MLS Cup Final, they know this year's opponents aren't the same side that defended for their lives and then prevailed on penalties last December.
“Seattle is the class of the Western Conference,” TFC coach Greg Vanney on Saturday. “[The final will feature] two good teams; deserve to be there. And two that are looking, in their own ways, to show something from last year as well. That makes for an exciting week.
“It's also two big clubs, who spend resources on their teams, academies, scouting, sport science. A tip of the hat to both in trying to push this league forward.”
Seattle won the 2016 MLS Cup on penalties despite failing to register a shot on target through 120 minutes of regular and extra time. However, Toronto recognize the Sounders have gotten markedly better going forward in the year since.
“They've improved offensively; their defensive core minus [Tyrone] Mears is about the same,” said TFC outside back Steven Beitashour. “Offensively, they've added a few really good pieces: Will Bruin, Harry Shipp; [Victor] Rodriguez is a good player who likes to drift inside and cause havoc.”
Not to mention the return to health of one of the most dangerous attackers in US soccer history.
“And they have [Clint] Dempsey back. They didn't have him in playoffs [last year],” said Beitashour. “They have a good team, good attacking core. We've been looking forward to this match-up for almost 365 days. Can't wait.”
Beitashour's opposite wingback, Justin Morrow, agreed.
“Last year, offensively they were very different; [had] a different makeup,” Morrow said. “Clint is a big part of their team. They've brought in Bruin, Rodriguez, and Joevin Jones has moved further up the pitch. They're more dynamic in attack, it changes their team mentality.”
Vanney, who prefers having plenty of options at his disposal, credits Seattle for also having a lot of choices in their squad.
“They're a deeper team, added some good pieces that give them a different look,” he said. “They have more options, whether it's off the bench or in game; they have more ways to impact the game. They're a better team. They'll come in with a lot of confidence because they've been on a good run.”
Coming into the final, Seattle have preserved four consecutive clean sheets and a postseason shutout streak of 647 minutes dating back to last season. In 2017, the Sounders have not conceded a goal since Oct. 1 against Philadelphia, a span of 542 minutes.
“They have a good defending team,” said Vanney. “Stefan Frei has had a great season; he's a very good goalkeeper. They've got good defenders; they deserve [their defensive record].”
But Vanney also noted that Seattle had the benefit of playing portions of both legs of their Western Conference Final up a man after red cards to Houston's Jalil Anibaba in the first leg and Tomas Martinez in the second.
“The way their games went, they never really opened up, teams never pushed against them to create some havoc, or problems for them,” Vanney said. “[Seattle] managed what they had to manage.”
To his eyes, the Western Conference matches were nowhere near as “intense, high-speed, or as hotly-contested” as those in the East, where Toronto had to battle for every inch against the New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew SC, progressing past the first 2-2 on away goals and the second by a 1-0 aggregate scoreline.
“We knew going into playoffs,” said Vanney. “When the top five teams in the shield standings are from the East, that you are going to have to really compete hard, do what you have to do to get out. I don't think [Seattle] have faced the type of intensity we've had to put into our games.
“That will be interesting: when you haven't had a super-intense game to have to come into one that is ultra intense. We'll try to use that as best we can.”