Every MLS team must construct a competitive squad under the same roster rules and salary-budget restrictions, but no two clubs approach the process exactly the same way. So how did it go for the two teams who will battle for MLS Cup at BMO Field on Saturday?
The short answer might be “a little bit of everything.” Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders both used a variety of player acquisition methods to build their 2016 rosters, with executives like Tim Bezbatchenko (TFC) and Garth Lagerwey (Sounders) showing their know-how along the way.
Here's a rundown of how they made their teams into the league's best in 2016.
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The Reds haven't hesitated to swap their draft picks for other assets – namely a few players and a bunch of allocation money – over the years. But some of this season's key depth pieces came straight from the January event.
2016 1st-round pick Tsubasa Endoh played a useful part in TFC's midfield as a rookie, chipping in two goals and 1,387 minutes over 21 league appearances (15 of them starts). Defender Nick Hagglund – one of the heroes of last week's gripping Eastern Conference Championship win over Montreal – was TFC's first selection (10th overall) in the 2014 SuperDraft. Backup goalkeeper Alex Bono, a 2015 Generation adidas member, also arrived via this route.
Toronto have invested millions in their academy system since it opened in 2008, including TFCII, the USL reserve team that helps to link the youth ranks to the first team. It's paying off in the form of Homegrown contributors like Jordan Hamilton, Jonathan Osorio and Mo Babouli, with more on the way.
International Signings and Designated Players
These are the ones that get the lion's share of attention, and over many of TFC's early years in MLS, they often got them wrong (Mista, we barely knew ya). But since Bezbatchenko got to town, the track record on big-ticket items has improved dramatically: 2015 MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco, veteran US internationals Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley and important role players like Benoit Cheyrou and Armando Cooper.
TFC's first coach (and subsequent director of football) Mo Johnston was dubbed “Trader Mo” for his love of intra-league swaps. While his successors haven't dealt with quite the same frequency, they've been much more efficient, picking up a range of vital assets for the current squad. More specifically, most of the back line corps arrived in Toronto that way: Steven Beitashour, Clint Irwin, Justin Morrow and Eriq Zavaleta, as well as influential center mid Will Johnson.
Bezbatchenko's vaunted knowledge of MLS' inner workings also shows itself in TFC's wire pickups. Bustling midfielder Marky Delgado arrived from Chivas USA via the dispersal draft in 2014, while reserve defender Josh Williams was snapped up in the waiver process last year. Defender Mark Bloom arrived via a loan deal with the Atlanta Silverbacks in 2013 before signing a permanent deal ahead of the 2014 season.
Some of the final pieces of the 2016 puzzle fell into place by this route. Steady defender Drew Moor was lured from Colorado last winter as the second player in history (just two days after Justin Mapp) to move within MLS via its new free-agency system, drawn by TFC's ambitions and facilities. Tosaint Ricketts, the attacking supersub down the stretch run for the Reds, signed in July after heretofore spending his entire pro career in various locales across Europe.
The Sounders haven't leaned particularly hard on the draft in recent year – though TFC can thank them for Zavaleta, who was originally a first-round Seattle pick (Generation adidas) in 2013. But this category is all about quality, not quantity, for them: The Rave Green snared Cristian Roldan, a key cog in this year's midfield engine room, by trading up to the 16th overall pick last year, arguably the biggest steal in modern SuperDraft history.
Reserves Oniel Fisher, Dylan Remick and backup goalkeeper Tyler Miller are also draft pickups, although Miller made stops in Germany's fourth division and the Sounders 2 reserve side on his way to the first team. So are Tony Alfaro, Damion Lowe, Jimmy Ockford and Charlie Lyon.
Seattle's promising academy has led to Homegrown signings Aaron Kovar, Darwin Jones and Victor Mansaray, but the undisputed jewel in the crown is Jordan Morris, the 2016 AT&T MLS Rookie of the Year. He made his hometown club wait a while as he conquered the college ranks before signing the biggest HGP contract in MLS history. But after 12 goals and four assists in the regular season and a trip to the 2016 MLS Cup, it's hard to say he wasn't worth it.
International Signings and Designated Players
Few MLS clubs have pushed the envelope in this department like the Sounders. The club opened a new era in MLS history in 2013 with their audacious capture of Clint Dempsey, one of the first high-profile US DP returnees from abroad. Nelson Valdez, their other big-money striker at present, hasn't been nearly as productive in regular-season play – though he's redeemed himself and then some with his exploits in the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs.
Seattle went back to the future during the summer transfer window, bringing back alumni Alvaro “Flaco” Fernandez and Erik Friberg to bolster their options. Andreas Ivanschitz and Tyrone Mears were two more sensible overseas signings, and aside from a serious knee injury that blighted his first year in Rave Green, Roman Torres has been excellent at the heart of defense. But the international recruit that's really changed the game in the Emerald City? DP playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro, who arrived from Boca Juniors over the summer amid great anticipation and expectations – and fulfilled just about all of them en route to MLS Newcomer of the Year honors.
Young forward Oalex Anderson was another international signing, coming to Seattle Sounders II from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines before signing a first-team deal before the season.
The Sounders were savvy in this department even before Lagerwey left Real Salt Lake for Puget Sound. Starting goalkeeper Stefan Frei, marauding left back Joevin Jones and three-time MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall are all prime examples.
A respected leader on the field and in the community, Brad Evans is one of three “Sounders originals,” players who've been around since the team entered MLS – and he arrived from Columbus as Seattle's 10th and final selection in their expansion draft, way back in 2008. Veteran striker Herculez Gomez dropped in for a second stint in Seattle early this year after TFC waived him.
Zach Scott was a holdover from Seattle's USL days who made a tradition of earning roster spots by the skin of his teeth year after year. Now he's “Mr. Sounder,” aiming to ride into the retirement sunset as an MLS Cup champ. Osvaldo Alonso arrived from the USL's Charleston Battery ahead of their MLS debut season and “the Honey Badger” went on to become a club icon in his own right.