So, this is it. One more game for all the marbles.
This is what we wanted, right? Players, coaches, administration, supporters… for an entire year, we have all been craving this.
Well, as the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for…
Saturday’s MLS Cup final is going to be the toughest game of the season. After a long nine months, our Reds will find themselves battling an unknown, fearsome opponent in close to sub-zero temperatures.
“Unknown?”, you ask. How could we not know the Seattle Sounders? Simple. We do not know these Seattle Sounders.
In many ways, the 2017 version of the Green Machine is superior to the western gladiators that entered our arena one year ago. Heck, forget 2016: the current version of the Seattle Sounders is a completely different squad than what we encountered earlier this year.
Over the course of this season, Seattle has bolstered its lineup in many ways – changes that have gelled at the right time and are paying dividends when it matters most. These changes include the acquisition of forward Will Bruin, the return of Clint Dempsey from injury, the conversion of Joevin Jones from defender to midfielder, the signing of defensive midfielder (and Azzurri slayer) Gustav Svensson and the addition of creative midfielder Victor Rodriguez.
Complementing the newbies, the players who were part of last year’s MLS Cup final have their experience to draw from. They have done it once, with a lesser lineup, and are all touting that they can (and will) do it again. Everyone in their organization is spewing confidence – right down to Drew Carey.
In an interview after Seattle’s Western Conference triumph, the bespectacled-one said: “I think we can do it. I think that we can get back-to-back rings. I am really confident.” He then went on to say that “nobody scores a goal on us. We’re going to be great.” That’s pretty bold. But maybe the Sounders’ form has merited this level of self-assuredness.
Over the second half of the regular season, the Sounders only lost twice and recorded 33 points (Toronto lost three times and collected 34 points). They outscored their opponents 32–14 over their final 17 games (Toronto outscored the opposition 44-21). They collected eight clean sheets (Toronto earned five).
During these playoffs, Seattle hasn’t lost a game and they haven’t conceded a single goal. They have outshot their opponents at better than a 2:1 ratio, and have potted seven goals in their four matches – five of those goals coming from open play. In short, they are on a roll and their momentum hasn’t waned since the end of June.
For the most part, their coach, Brian Schmetzer, has them playing a 4-2-3-1. But it’s not the same 4-2-3-1 that shut things down during last year’s final. The current alignment is far more fluid. Sure, Seattle is still tight and completely risk-averse at the back. But now they are also fast, creative and adventurous in the final third of the field.
On Saturday, this group will not be playing the old ‘rope-a-dope’ brand of footy that we saw before. They will not be playing for extra time. Their typical game plan is to strike first, and they definitely have the fire power to do so.
Let’s face it. Seattle has absolutely nothing to lose. Yes, there is the pressure of trying to repeat as champions. But if they fail, there is no shame. If they lose, they would have lost to, arguably, the best team in MLS history, on that team’s home turf, in weather more befitting a shinny game than a soccer match. Their excuses have already been banked.
Toronto, on the other hand, does not have any excuses. There are only lofty expectations. This has been true throughout the playoffs - four games in which the Reds have been wound tighter than a Swiss watch. We haven’t seen any free-flowing play. There haven’t been any comfortable leads. There has only been tension, luck, a few moments of excellence, and a lot of chewed finger nails.
If we experienced this just to get to the final, imagine what the final itself will bring. TFC are playing for the right to be called the best ever. TFC are playing to avenge last year’s disappointing loss. TFC have the added pressure of 60,000 eyes focused on their every move and 30,000 souls expecting an epic celebration. To make matters worse, TFC are playing against a much better team than they lost to last year, and they know it.
In a recent interview with TSN’s Luke Wileman, Greg Vanney seemed to be trying to convince himself that the Sounders are not the powerhouse that they actually are. He stated that their run of form is not as impressive as it appears. In Vanney’s opinion, Seattle has amassed success against weaker Western Conference opposition and, for that reason, their regular-season and post-season accomplishments are not at the same level as Toronto’s. Fortunately, after the interview, Kristian Jack was on the scene and quickly debunked that theory.
If Toronto was truly secure in their abilities, there would be no reason to try to downplay Seattle’s success. In fact, Vanney wouldn’t waste a single breath trying to elevate his team’s accomplishments against theirs.
There is the theory that Vanney, ever the strategist, is trying to put doubt into his opponents’ minds. But, again, if you are truly secure, then there is no need to engage in such behaviour. There is no need to taunt the opposition (implicitly or explicitly), and there is no need to distract from the immediate task at hand. Brian Schmetzer has refused to give-in to this distraction. As he sees it, Vanney’s comments are nothing more than “side salad”.
The unfortunate thing is that this “side salad” actually adds to the pressure. In essence, Vanney has reinforced the notion that the Sounders have absolutely nothing to lose.
Toronto’s recent form versus Seattle’s recent form, along with the memory of last year, coupled with the overwhelming pressure of this match, is enough to make anyone nervous. It’s okay to admit that. Perhaps, by admitting that, it relieves some of the pressure – loosening up the players’ feet and minds. No one is fooled by false bravado. We all watch the same games and read the same statistics.
The Seattle Sounders are a great team, and they will be playing against another great team in the next few days. On Saturday, they will provide Toronto FC with their toughest test of 2017 - perhaps their toughest test ever. The prize, at the end, is the right to truly call our Reds the best in MLS history.
No more side salad. It’s time for the main course.