I felt I had a pretty good idea why Greg Vanney would be confident about Toronto FC’s chances in Saturday’s MLS Cup final.
I didn’t think he’d say it out loud.
“Obviously, Seattle is the class of the Western Conference,” Vanney told TSN at the weekend. “Honestly, I just felt like as I watched the Western Conference [playoff] games… I just think they weren’t nearly as intense or as high-speed or as hotly contested as the Eastern Conference [games].
“I think that’s how the whole season was, to be honest. I think we knew going into the postseason that when the top-five teams in the Supporters’ Shield standings are from the Eastern Conference, that you’re going to have to really compete hard and do what you have to do to get out of the Eastern Conference.
“Our series’ were not short of any of that. Seattle showed that they’re the best team in the West. They were able to take care of teams… obviously, playing two games up a man for about half of each of those games helps, but they were also able to get leads.
“So I think it will be interesting because I really don’t think they’ve faced the kind of intensity we’ve had to face and put into our games.”
Vanney is not usually one to go hunting for headlines. He seems to enjoy tactical and technical questions the most, and will speak at length on those topics in a way that is interesting and enlightening but not especially conducive to soundbites.
Perhaps, this time, he wants to play a few psychological games with the Seattle Sounders (though he will not find a willing opponent Brian Schmetzer). Perhaps he was simply being honest.
To summarize, anyway, Vanney’s argument is that the challenges his team has faced during this year’s playoff run are their biggest strength: they are battle-tested and ready for whatever the Sounders throw at them.
Seattle, on the other hand, have had a relatively forgiving path back to the final.
They snuck into second place to avoid a knockout-round tie on the last day of the regular season and then breezed through a weaker field, benefiting from the attacking impotence of the Vancouver Whitecaps and a 28th-minute red card in Houston.
Seattle are yet to concede a goal in the playoffs, and have scored seven since they opened with a 0-0 tie in Vancouver.
That has set up Saturday’s rematch as something of a reversal of roles. Toronto, of course, scored 17 goals in five games before hosting the Sounders in last year’s final, battering New York City FC in the most one-sided playoff tie in MLS history.
Seattle, on the other hand, won 1-0 in the knockout round on an 88th-minute winner and then had to come through the Supporters’ Shield winners and runners-up.
We all know what happened afterwards.
But, then again, Toronto dominated that game and should have won it. So which of the two paths really prepares a team best, if either?
It would be hard for the Sounders to be concerned about the position they are in. They are hot, they are confident and have a number of players in excellent form.
Crucially, it is not just Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro and the rest of their stars; they know they are usually going to be good and can count on it. It’s the other players that fill in the gaps that could really be the difference.
Take Will Bruin, for example. After a perfectly fine but not particularly spectacular regular season, he now looks exactly like the Sounders had hoped he would: an affordable, workmanlike target man who brings his more talented teammates into the game in the final third and chips in with a few goals himself.
Then there is Victor Rodriguez, who has added class and intelligent movement to the Sounders’ possession-oriented style. Gustav Svensson has been a model of consistency at centre-back, right-back and in midfield.
You’ll notice that all of those players are new signings. It didn’t all click quite as quickly as it did in Toronto but general manager Garth Lagerwey has recruited very well again, gifting Schmetzer a better, deeper team to work with - and one that is peaking at the right time.
Bruin, Rodriguez, Svensson and the returning Dempsey, by the way, have scored all of the Sounders’ postseason goals.
But what Vanney suggested was not without some basis.
The history books provide some supporting evidence. No one over the past few seasons has been able to cruise through the playoffs to an MLS Cup as easily as this, and it would be a surprise if Seattle were able to change that in perhaps the strongest year in league history.
In fact, more Cup winners have stared down the barrel of elimination: Portland got through an 11-round penalty shootout in the knockout round in 2015, and Colorado needed penalties and extra time in separate rounds in 2010.
There has also been something of a mischaracterization of what Vanney actually said.
It’s very hard to imagine him, as has been made out by some, meaning to cast any aspersions on the ability of seasoned internationals like Dempsey and Lodeiro to step up to the plate when it matters.
But it is obvious that the type of dominant, attacking football that has got Seattle this far is going to be much harder to execute on the road against the best regular-season team in MLS history.
(It is also interesting to note that though the statistics show a far greater volume of Sounders attacks, Toronto are closer to them than you might expect when you drill down a bit deeper. TFC have had eight ‘big chances’, as defined by Opta, to 11 for Seattle. They have faced 10 shots on target to seven fired at the Sounders’ goal.)
Barring a Toronto meltdown, Seattle are going to have to adjust and show another side to themselves; one that has not yet needed to come to the fore during these playoffs.
That is something the Reds have become well-acquainted with over the past couple of rounds. They have not coped perfectly, but they have found a way to stay alive.