It’s not easy to make it to an MLS Cup. There are so many pitfalls along the way in a league defined by parity and the unexpected. In truth, the best teams rarely survive a viciously long playoff cycle that follows a rugged regular season campaign. It’s just the way things are.
The Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC have made it to MLS Cup twice in a row now, finalizing a championship rematch between two of the league’s marquee clubs. For one of those marquee clubs, Saturday is about putting together a repeat and locking down history. For the others, its about validation and a little bit of revenge.
“It’s Seattle again. We’re all excited it’s Seattle again,” said TFC captain Michael Bradley. “For me, the way I look at things, this is about our group of guys, our club, this city, and the road that we’ve taken to get here and what it meant after the disappointment and the heartbreak of last year to get here and have to live each and every day this year knowing in the back of our minds that this was all we wanted: to give ourselves another crack.”
That crack comes on Saturday, and while the 2017 MLS Cup finale features the same two teams as the 2016 version, there’s quite a bit different between two groups that played through a cagey, tepid 120 minutes last season.
Entering as reigning champions, the Sounders remain underdogs against a Toronto FC team that broke record after record throughout the 2017 campaign. But with the return of Clint Dempsey as well as new pieces like Victor Rodriguez and Will Bruin, the Sounders attack is significantly stronger than the one that failed to muster a shot in the finale last season.
Still, those that were around enter with an aura of confidence. The Sounders have done this before on this very feel, and that fact leaves them loose in the face of a major challenge.
“For us, everybody deals with it differently,” said goalkeeper Stefan Frei. “You should have your nerves because it is a big moment the question is how you deal with it. We’re a pretty close group and we believe in each other. We’re going to do as much as we can to make sure we’re prepared. And then it’s one game so who knows what will happen.”
“I think it’s the way we’re playing and the experience in the team,” added Kelvin Leerdam, one of the key additions to this year’s team. “We have a lot of guys 30 or older so nobody can tell them how you have to do it. Everybody knows. Everybody can handle the pressure and that’s one of the things that helps us be this loose and confident. I think it’s just confidence.”
For their part, TFC has reason to be confident as well. The club equaled a record for points in regular season play with 69 while also claiming the Canadian Championship. Following penalty kick heartbreak in 2016, TFC stormed through 2017 to earn the right to a second chance.
Players like Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore headline the big-name stars fighting for that second chance, while veterans like Justin Morrow and Drew Moor also return for another crack following a strong regular season. Add in pieces like a developing Alex Bono and Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez and TFC believes they have the talent, depth, and mentality to take care of business on home turf.
“It’s a must-win because we set it is as our primary goal at the start of the year,” said Moor. “We want to bring a championship here to this club and for ourselves and for the fans and for the city. It’s been an amazing season so far and to cap it off with MLS Cup would mean the world to us.”
“In my mind, this is about us,” added Bradley. “It’s about us stepping on the field and going for it. Even in the biggest game, having a group of guys in a fearless aggressive way going after it. That’s what we’ve done every single time we’ve played this year. Whether it’s been home or away, every team we’ve played against, we’ve stepped on the field trying to be aggressive, trying to go for it and trying to win. We’re going to do that one time and see where that leads.”
Regardless of where Saturday’s game ends, history will be made. The Sounders are embracing a shot at a dynasty and a chance to become only the third team ever to go back-to-back. TFC has their sights set on a historic treble that would all but certainly quantify them as one of the best MLS teams in league history.
“We all set a standard for ourselves in whatever department we have and we set that bar very high and it’s something we will continue to do and we are proud of the success we’ve had and to have the opportunity to do something really fantastic, which would be to repeat as champions,” added Sounders boss Brian Schmetzer. “As we all know in MLS, the league is getting much harder to win so these opportunities don’t come a lot so we’re taking it very seriously.”