Can Columbus or Toronto shake off the ghost of MLS Cup home heartbreaks?
Each MLS season, one team seems to adopt the moniker of the "team of destiny".
The 2014 LA Galaxy were catalyzed by Landon Donovan's final campaign -- and his World Cup snub. In 2015, the Portland Timbers advanced out of the first round by virtue of a Saad Abdul-Salaam double-post penalty miss, pinballing their way to Cascadia's first league title. Last year, the Seattle Sounders survived their worst start to a season in MLS history, winning the title despite failing to register a shot on goal in the final.
Both Portland and Seattle were able to win MLS Cup on the road, withstanding a higher seed to claim the praise. The two opponents? This year's Eastern Conference finalists Columbus Crew and Toronto FC. Spurned by losing at their friendly confines, each is hungry to get back to the final and redeem themselves.
Still, neither side wants to catch themselves chasing ghosts. Two years removed, Columbus has seen many key pieces from that 2015 side change scenery, from Kei Kamara to Ethan Finlay to Michael Parkhurst. It's created an entirely different team, on the field and off.
"It's difficult to compare this team to that one stylistically, because we do things differently," Wil Trapp, one of the few holdovers from two years ago, told ESPN FC. "It's all about the evolution of this group and how we adapt. We traded Kei last year, and now we couldn't be a crossing-based team. We've adapted really well to MLS 3.0 and playing in the league at this time."
If Columbus has adapted to the modern league, it may be in part because Toronto rewrote its playbook. The Reds felt hard done by last year's final, requiring a subtle re-tooling in order to get across the proverbial line. To head coach Greg Vanney, there wasn't another choice.
"We knew that one of our big challenges coming into this season was that we couldn't make up for what we didn't achieve last year by waiting to do it again this year," he said. "We couldn't take anything for granted last year. The league evolves quickly; last year, Portland and Columbus both missed the playoffs."
Possibly the biggest alteration has been the acquisition of Victor Vazquez. The Spaniard has both helped free up attackers Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore while relieving Michael Bradley of some playmaking duties. The player most affected by his addition has been homegrown Jonathan Osorio; long a starter in Toronto, he's had to get used to a diminished role.
"I've adapted, and I'm doing my best to prove I should play in every game to help the team," he said. "It's all I can do. I just try to find a way to make an impact in the game and help us win."
In both Columbus and Toronto, each team is carrying the weight of expectations. After earning a record 69 points in the regular season, Toronto is perfectly set up to be the best team in league history by winning the title.
"It almost feels like it's been so long ago, it isn't a discussion," Vanney said of the desire to finish what his team started. "I think we've had almost too much time to train; now, it's about the continuity of our group to get the result."
Meanwhile, Columbus seems to be the aforementioned "team of destiny", having silenced Atlanta United, stymied New York City FC and now locking down Toronto in the first leg -- all in the wake of the bombshell revelation that owner Anthony Precourt is exploring the option of moving the Crew to Austin, Texas in 2019.
"I think it's galvanized our fanbase," homegrown Trapp said. "It's created a conversation of excitement and belief. For me, personally, it's been awesome to see the rallying support. It does motivate us as players to give them something to cheer for, and hopefully a final in front of our home crowd."
With this, of course, there may be some added pressure on the Crew to deliver for their fans.
"I won't say it's a weight, I'd say it's positive [to have on my mind]," Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter said of this added impetus. "We want to win for the fans, and there's one more game to go before we could host the maximum amount for them. When you talk about people that have stuck with us since the inception of the club, it's a motivating factor."
Still, once the whistle blows and the game gets started on Wednesday night, all that'll matter is what happens between the lines. Toronto will eagerly welcome back Altidore and Giovinco, knowing that a single Columbus away goal would turn the series on its head. While acknowledging the Crew will be motivated by the #SaveTheCrew efforts, Vanney is trying to keep his men composed.
"I don't look at the emotions. The ones that will matter are the emotions that'll be felt as the game progresses. If we get chances and score goals, that'll change the emotion regardless of what's going on in Columbus. It'll come down to executing in key moments, not anything about destiny or any sort of thing that's out there."
Jeff Rueter is a St. Paul-based writer for ESPN FC and also contributes to The Guardian, FourFourTwo and Howler. Twitter: @jeffrueter.