Toronto-Seattle a rematch of evolved teams fighting for the same prize
TORONTO -- The quest to repeat as champions, or even return to a championship final, is littered with obstacles, most of them mental. Some mainstays fail to replicate the form of the previous year. Other players move on in search of bigger challenges at another club, or chafe at being stuck in the same role. New arrivals fail to make an impact. Most of all, mustering the Herculean effort required to reach a final gets eaten away by complacency.
It's doubly impressive then that both the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC have reached this year's MLS Cup final , just like they did last year. It's just the third time in the league's history that the same two MLS Cup finalists from one year have both returned the next season. You had the Houston Dynamo and the New England Revolution meeting in 2006 and 2007 (Houston won both) and then the LA Galaxy faced the Dynamo in 2011 and 2012 (LA claimed both titles).
In this case, both teams followed similar blueprints. An established core was kept intact. Both teams added critical pieces that strengthened the squads. And each side evolved and grew stronger over the course of the season.
The difference was in the details, and the psychological challenges that each team faced. Seattle was coming off the high of winning a championship in a season that saw the team emerge from what goalkeeper Stefan Frei called "a dark hole". The Sounders were mired near the bottom of the Western Conference in the 2016 midseason, fired longtime manager Sigi Schmid and then rode the arrival of midfielder Nico Lodeiro to the title, despite seeing forward Clint Dempsey sidelined by a heart ailment.
"Last year was kind of a blur for us," said Seattle manager Brian Schmetzer, who took over for Schmid. "It was pretty much get your blinders on, you've got to win every game you play, and you build momentum and you win a championship."
But Schmetzer didn't stand pat with his methods. Every aspect of the championship season was examined in a bid to prevent things from getting stale. He also wanted to make sure he "moved the needle north a little bit" to make sure that there would be no let up in the team's attention to detail.
Then there were the personnel challenges. The biggest one was reintegrating Dempsey back into the fold. That process is ongoing, especially as it relates to playing alongside Lodeiro, but the U.S. international found the net 15 times overall this season. Then there were the arrivals of defender Kelvin Leerdam, midfielder Gustav Svensson, midfielder Victor Rodriguez and forward Will Bruin thanks to the keen eye and work of GM Garth Lagerwey.
"Getting that to percolate and everybody knowing each other, yes, it was a process, but they're all smart soccer players," Schmetzer said. "And they bought in to what we were doing. They've been really, really good."
But Schmetzer's highest praise came for the mainstays of the team, players like Roman Torres, Chad Marshall, Ozzie Alonso and Cristian Roldan. The hunger of those performers didn't dim in the afterglow of the championship.
"The core group of guys in this franchise, they didn't need any reminders, they're all winners," Schmetzer said. "You look at Roman's success for Panama, what he does to help the teams that he plays on win. He didn't need Gustav Svensson to come to the team to make him play harder. He plays hard all the time."
The result was a season that Frei described as more professional, more calculated and one that "helps the nerves for sure." It was also one in which the Sounders grew into the season and then coalesced in the playoffs. It's also a team with a few more attacking options thanks to Rodriguez and Bruin, a key development given the hamstring injury to Jordan Morris, who will likely be on the bench on Saturday.
"We're now just starting our stride I feel like," Frei told reporters on Wednesday night. "The last two, three games we've been very clinical offensively and defensively. That bodes well."
Toronto meanwhile had to get over the heartbreak of losing last year's final on penalties, in front of its home crowd no less. But GM Tim Bezbatchenko and manager Greg Vanney already knew what they needed to augment the roster. Defender Chris Mavinga was brought in to add a physical, left-footed presence to the backline. Then there was the arrival of midfielder Victor Vazquez, who proved to be a crucial conduit in midfield that allowed Sebastian Giovinco to stay higher up the field.
"We didn't really have that guy like Vazquez," Vanney said. "We had guys who could work hard, who were good in possession, who could close, who could do the defensive work, who could support our attackers in that way, but we didn't have somebody like Victor last year. That's what has enabled us."
The result turned out to be a dominant, tactically flexible team that can beat opponents in a variety of ways. It's capable of moving pieces around the field if teams sit back. If opponents opt to press, TFC can nail them in transition through Vazquez, Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, while Giovinco's set pieces remain lethal.
"To win big games you've got to have different ways that you can win the game, and I think we've evolved a little bit in that way," Vanney said.
But even during a dream season, Toronto still found a way to evolve. The likes of goalkeeper Alex Bono and midfielder Marky Delgado stepped up their respective games to become consistent starters. The team's depth continued to reveal itself when the likes of Michael Bradley and Altidore were away on international duty.
"That is how we've changed this year compared to last year," Bezbatchenko said. "We have not just a group of 11 or maybe 13 players that can compete, our team is 18, 21 deep of people who can step on the field and can contribute at a high level."
So even though Saturday's final will be a rematch, in many ways it won't. Toronto is different, with Mavinga and Vazquez. The same is true of Seattle, through Svensson and Dempsey.
The psychology will be different as well. Toronto carries with it the pressure of competing a domestic treble to go with the Canadian Championship and the Supporters' Shield. Seattle will be free and easy, confident in its recent form and the fact it already has one MLS Cup in the bag.
The match figures to be a cagey affair however, at least early. That will suit the visitors just fine.
"We don't want a wide-open game," Frei said. "Some people may take that as, 'Oh, here we go again. They want a boring, defensive game.' No. What we don't want is a back-and-forth, Montreal-against-Toronto 4-3 or whatever kind of score. We don't want that. That plays into their hands."
Vanney is hoping for the opposite of course, though he acknowledges that finals are "always strange".
"I don't know when was the last time we saw a final in MLS that looked just like a straight soccer game where two teams are very tactical," he said. "The pressure of being in a final always affects sort of the beauty of the game in some ways in our league, and hopefully between our two teams, who like to have the ball, hopefully it can be a good tactical and good soccer final."
However it plays out, for one team, it will be the happiest of returns.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.