TFC and Seattle both have deep pockets, and both use them to push the league forward. As Toronto head coach Greg Vanney noted late last week, both clubs rank at or near the top of the league in spending on their rosters, technical staffs, academies, sport science departments and USL sides. That’s led to excellent results on the field, with TFC looking to cement their status as one of the top MLS teams of all-time by avenging their 2016 MLS Cup loss to the defending champion Sounders on Saturday (4 pm ET on ESPN, UniMás, TSN, TVAS).
"It’ll be two good teams [who] deserve to be there," Vanney said. "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."
Of course, the success of both clubs extends well beyond the field. Toronto and Seattle pack their stadiums, they have plenty of regional and national reach and they are near the top of MLS in sponsorship revenue, something that enables both to spend big on stars like Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Nicolas Lodeiro.
We’ll find out which team will win the 2017 title on Saturday, but determining which club is "bigger" is a more nebulous process.
Both teams can make a realistic case for the crown depending on the weight given to different on- and off-field factors. For just about every variable where one team has an edge, the other can point to a separate metric where they have a leg up. Seattle have long been the class of MLS in terms of attendance, but Toronto spend more on their roster than any other club. Each TFC match can be seen across Canada, but the Sounders have led the league in local TV ratings for several years running. You get the picture.
It makes for an interesting discussion in the case of these two specific clubs. Here's a look at how both rated in a few different categories and the underlying data could help in revealing a final verdict:
- TORONTO FC: Though they arrived in MLS two seasons before Seattle, Toronto have nowhere near as much historic success as the Sounders. They didn’t make the playoffs for the first time until 2015, and spent the bulk of their first eight years of existence at or near the bottom of MLS. That's not the case any more. Toronto had one of the best regular seasons in league history in 2017, and would become the first MLS team to win a domestic treble with a victory on Saturday. Their current payroll of $22.6 million according to MLSPU figures is nearly $5 million more than second-place NYCFC. They have elite talent, are willing to spend and have developed the cachet to recruit top-tier stars.
- SEATTLE SOUNDERS: From the minute they joined the league in 2009, the Sounders have been among the best teams in MLS. The Sounders have made the playoffs in every year of their existence, they have won four US Open Cup titles and, unlike Toronto, they have a Phillip Anschutz Trophy in the case. Long one of the biggest spending clubs in the league, the Sounders have dropped slightly in the league rankings when it comes to payroll in recent years. They still spend, but their $11 million 2017 (per MLSPU numbers) is half of TFC’s and sixth in MLS. It’s a big enough budget to feature the likes of Dempsey and Lodeiro, but their third Designated Player spot (occupied by captain Osvaldo Alonso) is arguably on a different tier compared to teams like Toronto, Atlanta, NYCFC or LA Galaxy.
- EDGE: Toronto. Seattle have the historic results, but Toronto’s payroll edge is telling. Both have excellent front offices, solid coaching staffs and incredible players, but TFC will feel they can outspend and out-recruit Seattle for the most elite MLS stars.
- TORONTO FC: Even during their down years, Toronto have always had impressive support. The club has 21,000 season ticket holders at 30,000-seat BMO Field, they rank third overall in gross merchandise sales per match and are first in the league in per capita food and beverage sales. They’ve got a big-time TV deal with TSN and CTV that ensures all their matches are broadcast across Canada, and they averaged 102,000 viewers per game this year, a massive 89 percent increase from their 2016 numbers. The sponsorship numbers are equally impressive. According to a TFC spokesman, the club is second in MLS in sponsorship revenue behind the Galaxy and have the second most valuable jersey and stadium rights deal in the league. They draw well at BMO, but they don't sell out every match, averaging 27,647 fans per game this year. That’s impressive, but Seattle surpasses them there.
- SEATTLE SOUNDERS: Atlanta took their attendance crown this season, but there’s no debating that Seattle have been the best supported team in MLS since they joined the league back in 2009. The club averaged 43,666 fans at CenturyLink Field this season. That’s a solid improvement on their 2016 average of 42,636 that ranked 29th in the world and second in the Americas behind Monterrey. Accounting for their cap of 40,000 fans per match, the Sounders have sold out an astounding 165 consecutive matches. That’s absurd, as is their season ticket sales total in the mid-30,000s. Of course, the support in Seattle extends beyond the stadium. The Sounders say that they’ve had the top local TV ratings in the league for several years. Their games are shown on free over-the-air TV on Q13 FOX and in five states in the Pacific Northwest on ROOT Sports, giving them plenty of reach. Six of their players made the top 25 of best-selling jerseys in MLS in 2017, with four making the top 11. The team has led MLS in merchandise sales for seven of their nine years in the league, finishing second to expansion teams in the other two years. They bleed blue and green in Seattle, and they’ve shown it for years and years.
- EDGE: Seattle. The support in Toronto is incredible, but Seattle is the class of the league. By numbers, passion and longevity, Sounders supporters give their club the edge in this category.
Infrastructure (academy, USL, stadium, training facility)
- TORONTO FC: When it comes to infrastructure, Toronto’s got it all. The Reds have spent on their facilities and path to the pros, and it shows. Post-renovation BMO Field is gorgeous, loud, large and is soccer-first with a natural grass playing surface that's typically in pristine conditions. And the Kia Training Ground is right there with Atlanta’s sparkling new practice facility as the best in the league. They have their own USL side in TFC II and, though they don’t play in the US Soccer Development Academy, have a robust academy that’s beginning to produce impact players like Jonathan Osorio and Raheem Edwards. Apart from BMO Field, which is owned by the City of Toronto but managed by TFC owner MLSE, everything in this umbrella is under club control. From their Under-10s all the way up to first team, Toronto have built their club to give their players every opportunity to succeed. All MLS teams try to do that, but TFC arguably manage it better than just about everyone else.
- SEATTLE SOUNDERS: CenturyLink Field is an excellent place to watch a soccer game, but the Sounders have to share with the NFL’s Seahawks for half the year. They’ve got a solid training facility at Starfire Sports Complex, but there’s a sense in Seattle that the Sounders have started to outgrow the facility. It doesn’t have the bells and whistles of the best training grounds in the league, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if they upgraded in the near future. Things are a little rosier on the player development front. The Sounders were one of the first clubs to establish a USL side, and they made a forward-thinking move this offseason to move Sounders 2 to Tacoma. Business operations will be managed by Minor League Baseball’s Tacoma Rainiers, while the Sounders will maintain control over technical operations. The arrangement is reminiscent of an MLB club’s AAA farm team, and should invigorate the business side of S2. It might turn into a model for other MLS clubs as they continue to tweak their USL arrangements. While S2 has produced a solid player in Nouhou Tolo, there is a consensus around the league that Seattle’s academy is a bit lacking in talent of late post-DeAndre Yedlin and Jordan Morris. That’s partially due to the realities of their market, but it is a concern for the club going forward.
- EDGE: Toronto. It’s close, but Toronto win out thanks to their soccer-first stadium, the excellent Kia Training Ground and their superior academy.
They only won by a nose, but for me Toronto take this title over Seattle. We’ll see who takes the only crown that matters on Saturday.
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!