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Stejskal: More than just a final, MLS Cup could be the dawn of a new era

TORONTO – Long before Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore returned to MLS, long before Sebastian Giovinco, Nicolas Lodeiro and Victor Vazquez joined the league, long before Toronto FC even made their first playoff appearance, BMO Field hosted an MLS Cup.

Seven years ago, on a miserably cold November night on Lake Ontario, the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas faced off in the first final to be played in Toronto. It was more of an battle for survival than a spectacle, a difficult, rough and tumble night during the height of MLS’s awkward adolescence.

Colorado and Dallas were low-profile teams without much real star power. The match was ugly, the weather was brutal and a large portion of the mostly apathetic crowd bailed at halftime. Even the game-winner was grim, with Colorado winger Mac Kandji tearing his ACL as he put in a cross that deflected off Dallas defender George John and bounced in for a heartbreaking own goal.

Now MLS Cup is back in Toronto for a third time. TFC and Seattle will meet in the final at BMO Field on Saturday (4 pm ET | ESPN, UniMas, TSN, TVAS) for the second straight year, with Toronto looking to avenge last year’s shootout loss to the Sounders.

To simply say that things have improved since that nasty night would be an egregious understatement. The league hasn’t just moved up a few steps since the Rapids outlasted FCD in extra time seven years ago, it’s climbed a few floors.

Saturday's occasion will have a vastly different feel than first MLS Cup at BMO field, when current Toronto FC defender Drew Moor, right, helped the Colorado Rapids defeat FC Dallas in front of a largely empty stadium / Getty Images

Toronto and Seattle have rosters, resources, infrastructure and support that most teams couldn’t even dream of back in 2010. From their front offices to their first teams to their supporters, they’re two of the league’s model clubs in just about every way. That they’ll meet in their second straight final on Saturday is fitting, and might just make for the biggest MLS Cup of all-time.

“The league seems to have grown so much since 2010,” said Toronto defender Drew Moor, who played all 120 minutes for Colorado in MLS Cup 2010. “It’s been amazing to watch and to see some of the players that have come here in their primes, not just to this club but obviously to other clubs in MLS.

“I had an opportunity when I was 24, 25 to go to a smaller club in Europe, but I didn’t want to leave MLS. I wanted to be a part of its growth. And to be able to play my third MLS Cup here at BMO, one of the best atmospheres in the league with some of the players that will be on the field, it’s going to be awesome.”

It really should be. Both teams have significantly improved since MLS Cup 2016, an ugly match that ended with Seattle raising the trophy despite not recording a single shot on goal. Toronto added Vazquez to their already excellent core, with the Spaniard playing a leading role as TFC won the Canadian Championship, Supporters’ Shield and set the MLS single-season points record. Seattle may have taken an even bigger step forward, adding Gustav Svensson, Victor Rodriguez, Kelvin Leerdam, Will Bruin and Nouhou and getting Dempsey back from the heart ailment that kept him out for the second half of last season.

For the first time in recent memory, neither MLS Cup finalist has a weak spot anywhere in their starting XI. Both clubs have solid options on the bench, too, with US international Jordan Morris available in reserve for Seattle and Nicolas Hasler, Armando Cooper and either Jonathan Osorio or Marky Delgado likely to be options off the bench for Toronto head coach Greg Vanney.

The quality on the field will be reflected in the stands, with a packed house at BMO set to give Saturday’s match a special feel. There’s a palpable anticipation about the game in Toronto, the biggest market to embrace MLS on a broad scale. Unlike some teams in the largest American cities, TFC are a real part of the sporting community in Toronto, with all the media attention, fan support and sponsorship dollars that go along with that.

“This franchise really resonates here, and it’s a different vibe than some of the teams have in the other big cities,” said TFC president Bill Manning. “I think that’s a real breakthrough for the league. We’ve been able to capture a large market like this that has a lot of (competition). We have a Major League Baseball team, an NBA team, an NHL team that’s one of the original six, so there’s a lot of other big teams here, but we’ve captured our niche quite well.”

With its ability to draw massive crowds to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, could Atlanta United could join Toronto, Seattle and a few others in a new class of MLS superclubs? / USA Today Sports Images

Of course, few teams have found their niche quite like the Sounders, who led the league in attendance their first eight years in MLS before being passed by expansion club Atlanta United this year. Like Toronto, Seattle have the fan support, resources and organizational talent to sustain their success. Both clubs are positioned to remain among the MLS elite well into the foreseeable future, along with a few other teams – Atlanta and New York City FC, to name two – who also spend smart and big.

“I think for the league to have more and more clubs that are willing to spend in different areas, that are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that on and off the field they’re going to be at the highest level, that’s how the league gets moved forward. And ultimately that’s what we all want,” said Bradley. “I think it’s even more exciting when you have another season where the two teams standing at the end are two of those types of clubs. I think it justifies everything that’s being done, and I think it encourages everybody else to do the same thing to try and keep pace.”

As more and more money enters the league, those types of teams could start to separate even further from the middle class. The parity that has long been one of the defining qualities of MLS might take a significant hit. That prospect gives Saturday’s MLS Cup an even bigger feel. This could be more than just another title game. This MLS Cup feels like the early stages of a new era, one with Toronto and Seattle in the vanguard and one that’s a long, long way from Colorado vs. Dallas in November 2010.

“I think we’re starting to see a paradigm shift, where I think the next five years will be really interesting,” said Manning. “Will there be kind of an escalation of five or six teams that are amongst the best in the league each year because of their resources and wherewithal of their coaches and executives, similar to what you have in the Premier League?

“I actually think that's a good thing. I feel very good about the fact that we are being rewarded for taking chances with investments, but also being rewarded because I think we’ve made a lot of good decisions, as I think Seattle has, too. Good people, good decisions and it’s come together. I think both of us can feel very proud that we’re back here again.”

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!