SEATTLE – Sunday’s MLS Cup Final (3 pm ET | ABC, Univision, TUDN, TVAS, TSN) will be a fitting anniversary. Ten years since Seattle Sounders joined the league and the city played host to MLS Cup for the first time. And 10 years since Seattle set the benchmark for what an MLS club could be.
But it is not just the host — a sold-out CenturyLink Field full with more than 69,000 fans — that makes it a fitting occasion to reflect on the growth of the league as it prepares to enter its 25th season. Opponents Toronto FC, who entered MLS two years prior to the Sounders, have similarly long been recognized as an example for others to follow.
It is no coincidence that the two teams will be facing off in their third MLS Cup Final in four years.
“I think that it’s great that it’s the 10-year anniversary of Seattle joining the league and even a few years before that when Toronto joined,” said Toronto FC defender Omar Gonzalez, who was on the losing side for the LA Galaxy in that 2009 final at the end of his rookie season.
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“The league had high expectations for choosing these cities to bring MLS clubs to and here we are: playing a final in Seattle,” he continued. “Two great clubs who have done so well these past 10 years. And I think it speaks volumes to how much the league has grown and how well clubs are run nowadays in this country.”
Launching in 2007 as the league's first club from north of the border, Toronto FC instantly made their impact felt, if not on the field then certainly in the stands. Playing in the brand-new soccer-specific BMO Field, TFC consistently played to sold-out crowds that raucously supported their team in a manner that to that point was more common in Europe and South America than North America.
Two years later, Seattle raised the bar yet higher, becoming the first team in MLS history to record an average attendance in excess of 30,000 while playing at what is now CenturyLink Field and reaching the playoffs in their first season. They have yet to miss out on the postseason since.
“They were really innovative when they launched. They were the first team to do this on an NFL level, saying we can make this just as big and make it an offshoot of the Seahawks rather than a glorified minor league soccer team,” said Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey, who joined the club in 2015. “That insight was critical, because that’s now in the DNA of the club.”
MLS Commissioner Don Garber took the praise even further during his State of the League address on Friday.
"I sit here today and look at the folks from Seattle and say without you and all the commitments that you’ve made and the energy that you’ve put behind this league we’re not the league we are today,” he told the assembled media in Seattle.
But what has made Seattle and Toronto different and how have they continued to succeed, even as clubs like Atlanta United and LAFC have entered the league and broken records on and off the field? It boils down to ambition.
“What I would say from our perspective, our objective is to be the best always,” said Toronto general manager Ali Curtis told MLSsoccer.com. “To find ways to have the best players, scouting, sports analytics, culture, facilities. To drive that, sometimes that means spending, sometimes that means being efficient at what you do and how you do it.”
That ambition has impacted the rest of the league.
"I think we try to push the envelope always," Curtis added. "If anything, I'd like to think that inertia, momentum, push other clubs in that direction as well."
Stability from the front office to the locker room has been an important factor, too, said Lagerwey, who noted there are also some notable connections between the two clubs.
Both Curtis and Lagerwey attended and played soccer at Duke, while Toronto FC president Bill Manning was Lagerwey’s boss during most of his seven years at Real Salt Lake. Also at RSL at that time was current TFC coach Greg Vanney, then academy manager.
“I think a lof of us have a similar philosophy a way of looking at the game, a way of looking at the league, and not surprisingly we wound up at not dissimilar outcomes,” Lagerwey said.
For Seattle Sounders, there is one man who has been there from the beginning, both witnessing and shaping what the club has become. And for Sounders coach and Seattle native Brian Schmetzer, Sunday’s first-ever MLS Cup Final hosted by the Sounders will be the culmination of decades of work.
“It’s massive,” he said Wednesday. “I tell people I skipped school when the Sonics had their parade, we were there with the Seahawks celebrating them. Being a Seattle guy I’m really proud of what the organization has accomplished.”