TORONTO – Twenty years from from now, a group of middle-aged men will gather to celebrate history. They’ll come from all over, bringing wives, sons, daughters, even grandchildren together to remember a moment of sporting glory that transcended themselves.
They’ll tell stories, forgotten details resurfacing as they take turns driving the narrative. They’ll walk out on to the pitch for old time’s sake, highlights from long ago flashing across a massive video screen as triumphant music and soundbytes pulse through stadium speakers. They’ll wave to an adoring crowd, and mothers and fathers will tell their children about these men, the legends who captured the star stitched above the crest on the jerseys they wear proudly.
These men will forever be known as MLS Cup champions, but they’ll also understand titles are about far more than the gaudy rings they wear on their fingers to commemorate that frigid December night at BMO Field. They’ll know that night was about more than a trophy, more than a ring, more than another entry in a dusty record book.
They’ll know that night gave birth to a legacy, personal and collective, that lived on long after they said goodbye and their careers came to a close. Those men will be 2016 MLS Cup Champions, and that night has yet to come.
On Saturday at BMO Field (8 pm ET; FOX and UniMas in the US; TSN and RDS in Canada), either Toronto FC or the Seattle Sounders will lift MLS Cup for the first time, writing the final chapter of a story that will be told for decades, a story that elevates men who kick a ball for a living to conquering heroes. They will be the winners. The losers will watch as the confetti falls and celebrations unfold in front of them. They’ll be remembered, too, as the team that inspired a city but fell just short.
And while the margins on Saturday night will be razor thin, the implications are glaring and obvious. Sports are about defining moments, and none delineates between winner and loser more clearly than a championship game.
Would Landon Donovan be universally remembered as the best American soccer player of all-time without the six MLS Cup championships he won with the San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy? Without the record five goals he scored in those games? Without the big-game resume that screams, ‘I’m the best this league has ever seen, and I’ve got a handful of rings to prove it,’ would the league mint an MVP trophy that bears his name and image?
Would Bruce Arena, the godfather of US soccer coaches who is currently taking a second crack at the US national team job, be given that honorary title or considered for that job (again) without the two MLS Cups he won with D.C. United or the three he lifted with the Galaxy alongside Donovan? Would his coaching tree have branches across the country and globe without those triumphs?
How would our perception of the Revolution, five-time MLS Cup runners-up and never champions, change had a few of those finals gone New England’s way? Might the MLS careers of Steve Nicol, Taylor Twellman, Shalrie Joseph and Steve Ralston be remembered differently with a championship or two (or three or four)?
We know the answers to those questions. Championships change everything.
Michael Bradley doesn’t need to be reminded that he could be the captain to deliver Toronto FC the title that could complete the club’s transformation from laughing stock to regional powerhouse. Lifting the Phillip F. Anschutz Trophy on Saturday night could be the defining moment of his MLS – and perhaps even club – career. It could make him a Toronto icon.
Jordan Morris could be the hometown star who did what so many before him could not and bring MLS’s ultimate prize back to Puget Sound. He could, at just 22 years of age and in his first year as a pro, seal his place in Seattle and Sounders lore, a young man forever close to the hearts of a city full of soccer fans who helped redefine the MLS paradigm.
Sebastian Giovinco could lay claim to the unofficial title Best MLS Player of All-Time should he cap off the most productive two-year span in the history of the league with a championship. Nicolas Lodeiro could be the savior who finally took the Sounders to the summit. Jozy Altidore could prove his doubters wrong by capping off an MVP-worthy and potentially record-setting postseason with the Cup itself. Unfair as it might be, Clint Dempsey could be remembered in Seattle for the game his body wouldn't let him play.
Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey could prove he’s more than Real Salt Lake’s moneyball title in 2009, a man who can spend big and win big, too. His equivalent in Toronto, Tim Bezbatchenko, could inspire Theo Epstein comparisons for his relative youth, innovative approach and turnaround of a moribund franchise with unbridled ambition and rabid support but little to show for it.
Sounders fans could finally parade through downtown Seattle with the prize they’ve coveted above all others, a prize their arch rivals beat them to just last year. Reds fans, meanwhile, could claim the legitimacy they’ve craved since the very beginning, sweet redemption for all those seasons they showed up to watch a team destined to implode in the most painful way possible.
Anything could happen. Only one thing will.
For two clubs and two cities, Saturday night will change the course of their sporting history. Twenty years from now, one will look back on Dec. 10, 2016 fondly, memories flooding back with the sharpness and clarity that comes with victory. The other will wonder what might have been.
That day has yet to come, but there’s more than hardware at stake. Legacies ride on it.
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