A lot can change in a year, especially in MLS. When it comes to the league’s elite, though, it appears plenty has stayed the same.
For the second consecutive season, Toronto FC is set to host the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup finale. For the second straight year, the Sounders and TFC stand far ahead of the competition in more ways than one and, because of that fact, they stand alone. It’s the reigning champions against the record-breaking Supporters’ Shield winners in a heavyweight clash.
But for all of the hype and excitement and build-up, there is a memory of last season’s dull Sounders victory. It was a match with plenty of drama, but no goals. However, for a variety of reasons, TFC boss Greg Vanney says he doesn’t expect last year’s finale to be any sort of predictor for this year’s clash.
“No. Definitely not,” Vanney said on a conference call on Tuesday. “Everyone will play in the vision of trying to win the game. They will try to play in a way that makes sense for them to try and win the game. That’s up for them to decide. I don’t think anyone plays for 0-0. Teams try to play not to give up goals and teams try to play to score goals. It’s up to your vision on how you want.
“With the addition of Clint back into the equation, they get another ex-factor because Clint is very capable of making a play whether it’s making an assist or scoring a goal, which is an element that they didn’t have last year. They’ve added other players over the course of the season that have brought a different dynamic. It doesn’t change who they are as a team. They just have different strengths than the guys they had last year and different types of guys. They are who they are.”
While the Sounders have seen the additions of players like Dempsey and Victor Rodriguez, TFC is also much different than the team that fell short last season.
The most obvious change of star midfielder Victor Vazquez, who fit in seamlessly to an already talented TFC attack. With Michael Bradley focused as a No. 6, Vazquez is free to create havoc behind Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco.
While Vazquez has had a major impact, the existing spine has also stepped up. Bradley, Altidore and Giovinco have all done their part, while veterans Justin Morrow and Drew Moor turned in spectacular seasons. Add in the continued development of younger players like Alex Bono and Marky Delgado and you have a team built to succeed.
It’s not just the players, though, but how they play. Last season, Vanney felt his team was married to one specific principle and one specific play style. As the 2016 wore on, TFC developed the five-at-the-back set that is now their go-to, but it’s far from the only way they can play when it comes to a pressure situation like an MLS Cup.
“I think our group has evolved in a way where we can win games in various ways which has given us the ability to adapt to the game over the course of a long season,” Vanney said. “That evolution has come as a result of the addition of some players and through some just our continued evolution and growth as a team.
“For me, that’s the difference. We feel we can gain an edge in more than just one way where last year we felt we had to have a pretty precise vision to give ourselves the greatest margin to win.”
Now, TFC will look to do what they couldn’t last year: win an MLS Cup on home soil. The 2016 final was the end of a memorable playoff run, one which saw an raucous BMO Field crowd unceremoniously sent home by a Sounders penalty kick win.
Knowing that, there’s a bit of pressure on TFC. There’s pressure for revenge and pressure from fans to take care of business at home after falling short a year back. But the biggest pressure is internal for a team that’s been MLS Cup or bust since the moment Roman Torres’ penalty kick hit the back of the net last December.
“Seattle, they’re the reigning champions and you have to respect that, but we’re looking to take the title from them,” Altidore said. “Regardless of how people’s opinions of how they won, they won, and we have to make sure that, come Saturday night, we take the trophy from them. That’s what we’re all thinking about.”