For the first time in their respective histories, Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders have qualified for the MLS Cup final. The similarities don’t end there because their journeys to this point have been eerily indistinguishable, although they did experience contrasting regular seasons.
Toronto FC was relatively consistent throughout the regular season and finished third in the Eastern Conference. The Sounders were in the basement of the Western Conference in July, but they bounced back under new manager Brian Schmetzer to move up to fourth in order to make the playoffs.
Here is a breakdown of how each team qualified for the MLS Cup final.
The Sounders entered the Western Conference knockout round in red-hot form. Seattle had lost just two of its final 15 games in the regular season, which set up a meeting with Sporting Kansas City. The Emerald City advanced 1-0 in a highly controversial match.
Seattle then had Supporters’ Shield winners FC Dallas in its path. Dallas was missing key playmaker Mauro Diaz, a massive boost for the Sounders, who took full advantage in a 3-0 win in the first leg of the conference semifinals. The Hoops made a late push in the second leg, but Seattle ultimately advanced 4-2 on aggregate.
The Colorado Rapids were the only other team left standing in the West. Unlike the previous matches, Seattle fell behind early as Kevin Doyle gave the visitors the lead in the first leg of the conference final. However, the Sounders equalized just six minutes later through Rookie of the Year Jordan Morris. Nicolas Lodeiro, who has been heavily influential in the team’s dramatic turnaround, won and converted a penalty on the hour mark to clinch the victory.
Much like the first game, Morris came up big in the second leg despite experiencing flu-like symptoms before the match. The U.S. international was also banged up during the match, but continued to play and eventually scored the decisive goal in a 1-0 win. Seattle advanced 3-1 on aggregate and is still unbeaten in the postseason.
Toronto FC was matched up with the Philadelphia Union in the knockout round. TFC only won two of its final eight games in the regular season, and were rightly wary and particularly motivated to avoid consecutive first-round upsets. The Reds managed to clinch their first-ever playoff victory by cruising past the Union 3-1. Crucial performances from Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco who both, not for the first time this year, scored on the big stage, with local boy Jonathan Osorio adding the final tally.
Next up was New York City FC in the Eastern Conference semifinal. Both sides boasted two of the best attacks and two of the top forwards in MLS. The first leg was a cagey affair, but TFC struck twice in the final six minutes through Altidore and Tosaint Ricketts to secure a 2-0 win. The second leg wasn’t even close as Toronto made a statement in a 5-0 demolition to move on to the conference final.
TFC’s fierce rival, the Montreal Impact, was the only obstacle remaining before MLS Cup. No Canadian team had ever reached the conference final, let alone MLS Cup, so it was a historic series in many ways. The first leg at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium quickly unraveled for Toronto as it fell behind 3-0 at halftime. However, a late surge from Altidore and Michael Bradley softened the blow as the Reds left Quebec with a 3-2 loss.
What ensued in the second leg may never be forgotten by MLS fans. The Impact opened the scoring to take a 4-2 aggregate lead, but TFC came roaring back with two goals to close out the first half, making it 4-4. Montreal bagged an equalizer to retake the advantage on aggregate, 5-4, albeit with hints of offside from Dominic Oduro as Ignacio Piatti’s shot crossed the line. Nonetheless, the hosts struck again to level the semifinals at 5-5, and even on away goals, which forced extra time. Giovinco exited the game with a cramp, but his substitute Benoit Cheyrou scored the eventual winner. Ricketts added another to ensure TFC’s spot in MLS Cup.
The 2016 MLS Cup final kicks off on Dec. 10 at BMO Field. Which team will make history?