ExtraTime Radio Podcast
LISTEN: The 2017 MLS season comes down to this... Seattle vs. Toronto, an MLS Cup rematch that might just be the best final of all-time, depending on who you ask. Will the Sounders repeat? Will the Reds lay claim the best season of all-time? David Gass and Sam Stejskal get things started from the Six, and Andrew and Matt finish things off from the Green Room back in NYC. Subscribe so you never miss a show! Download this episode!
It's actually a stretch to call the 2017 season a "redemption tour" for Toronto FC, who came so damn close to winning MLS Cup last year and making good on the top-to-bottom promise of their roster. But the fact is that they failed to get the job done at home in the biggest game of the year, and while Saturday's 2017 MLS Cup (4 pm ET | ESPN, UniMás; TSN, TVAS) isn't strictly about redemption... I mean, at least a little bit of it is, right?
That said: regardless of what happens in this MLS Cup rematch, this TFC team will and should be remembered for years to come. If they lose they'll be in the mix with the 1998 Galaxy, the 2001 Miami Fusion, the 2005 and 2012 Quakes and 2014 Sounders as one of the greatest MLS teams of all-time, but one that failed at the final hurdle. It will still be a successful season, but – to paraphrase Reds GM Tim Bezbatchenko – it will no doubt feel incomplete.
The good news for TFC fans? The window of contention is very much still open for the next couple of years. Nobody should be that surprised if I'm writing this column again 12 months from now.
How They Got Here
Over the last quarter of a season in 2016, Greg Vanney figured out his personnel would work best in the 3-5-2, and that formational switch was the catalyst for their late-season surge that propelled them all the way to the final game. And yes, they were utterly dominant in that final game before falling in PKs.
TFC were very up front after last year's MLS Cup, admitting they needed more pure creativity out of central midfield in order to break down bunkered-in defenses, and that's what Vazquez has provided. He finished the year with 8 goals and 16 assists, and he makes it so that TFC don't have to commit numbers forward in order to break teams down. They are completely content attacking with just three:
When they need it to be, the 3-5-2 becomes a 5-3-2 because Vazquez, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore can unlock most defenses on their own. That allows the Reds to keep numbers back in defense and keep off-the-ball penetration to a minimum, which is what we saw quite often against Columbus in the Eastern Conference Championship.
That, however, was the exception. Mostly the Reds got here by being superb at every line, from goalkeeper all the way to the forwards. They scored the second-most goals per game in MLS history, had the second-best goal differential, became just the second team in league history to score twice as many as they conceded, were the first team since the 2005 Quakes to collect 2 points per game or better, tied the league record for wins… understand that I could keep going with this list.
TFC were simply remarkable in 2017. They took the group that mostly blitzed the league in last year's playoffs and added a Best XI-caliber playmaker. That's good stuff.
Literally everyone. When you play like this team played from March through October, you invite an incredible amount of pressure because each win piles on new fan expectations, and each game invites forward a new opponent who's going to give you his best shot and more, and each story comes at a potential (or potentially imaginary) problem from a new angle, and there is a collective sense of "nothing means anything until the big game."
Well, the big game is here. I'm a Supporters' Shield truther – I think it's the hardest and best trophy to win, but I am in the rank minority. Nearly everyone I speak with (players especially) see MLS Cup as the biggest prize, and it's the one that's eluded TFC thus far despite their league's-biggest budget.
I'm not saying they have to get it done. Like I said, this core group's window of contention should stay open probably two or three more years.
But if they win, they will have spiked the rest of MLS into the core of the earth for an entire calendar year, and will have put to rest the "who's the best team in MLS history?" debate.
If they lose, they're halfway to being the Buffalo Bills.
One Thing To Be Concerned About
I mean, there's more than one thing. TFC haven't really played a good, complete game since the end of September, and Seattle have been damn near invincible when they have their first-choice defense, and Clint Dempsey's on a jag, and Altidore's carrying a knock, and let's not forget that Giovinco basically didn't show up to last year's final.
But really, I think the biggest thing is "have we been scouted?" Vanney's had to repeatedly move away from the 3-5-2 down the stretch and into the playoffs as teams have gotten more ruthless about trying to destroy the Reds' ability to play – the best example being, of course, the way RBNY used Tyler Adams as an advanced destroyer tasked specifically with disrupting Michael Bradley's distribution.
Bradley has been inarguably the best defensive midfielder in MLS this year, and it's a crime that he was left off the Best XI. He's one of the few guys in the league who plays as a true solo d-mid, which means he has more responsibility on both sides of the ball than anybody else in the league at that position. You see it in his usage rate, in the types of passes he hits, and in the fact that Zone 14 is an absolute dead spot against TFC. He has shut that area down for an entire year.
Lately, however, teams have gone out of their way to limit his touches and to make him into more of a 1v1 defensive player rather than a pure organizer, and the Reds have struggled to cope with that. Their movements and distribution…
It's been mechanical and predictable, and there really hasn't been an obvious Plan B put into place (partially, at least, because Marky Delgado has been struggling).
Brian Schmetzer's not much of a tinkerer so it's highly doubtful we see anything as unusual as the diamond midfield Jesse Marsch threw at TFC in the East semis, and Bradley was back to being his dominant self in the second leg against Columbus.
But if Seattle want to turn the game on its ear, they could do this. Put Cristian Roldan in the Adams role, have Gustav Svensson at the back point of the diamond, and then put Nicolas Lodeiro on one side and Victor Rodriguez on the other, and you have a worthy facsimile of what the Red Bulls did in that 1-0 win at BMO last month.