The Supporters’ Shield, the points record, all the individual honours... Toronto FC would trade the lot for a win today.
The Reds are back in the MLS Cup final, hosting the league’s championship game for the second year in a row, and once again face the Seattle Sounders.
This match ended in heartbreak for the hosts in 2016, with TFC dominating for 120 minutes only to fail to beat Stefan Frei and lose in a shootout.
It was the Sounders’ first MLS Cup, and they now have a chance to become the first repeat champions since the LA Galaxy in 2012. No team has won back-to-back Cups while playing both finals as the road team.
For Toronto, the perfect season is on the line.
They have toppled every challenge that has been put in front of them this year, setting a new points record in the regular season. Win one more time in front of their own fans and, having already won the Shield and the Canadian Championship, they will claim an unprecedented treble.
Kick-off: 4.30 p.m. ET
Venue: BMO Field, Toronto
How long can Jozy Altidore last, and at what capacity?
No one outside of Toronto’s locker room knows just what state Altidore’s ankle, which suffered a blow in the Eastern Conference final, is in. Greg Vanney has reported positively on his progress every day this week, but he could hardly say otherwise given Altidore has insisted he will play regardless of his condition.
Common sense would seem to dictate that unless he is really struggling, Altidore will get 60 minutes by default. What happens after that will depend on how the game is going: if Toronto are drawing or losing, Vanney will be looking over his shoulder at Tosaint Ricketts. If they are up, Jonathan Osorio is the most likely entrant. If Altidore is still going well, of course, he will continue.
One of Vanney’s few missteps - and it’s much easier to label it a misstep with the benefit of hindsight - in last year’s playoffs was leaving a cramping Sebastian Giovinco out on the field for too long. It’s hard to see that happening again.
Where do you start?
Will Giovinco have more joy against Roman Torres and Chad Marshall without Osvaldo Alonso bearing down on him from behind (and, ridiculously, committing five fouls without a booking)?
Can Michael Bradley keep a lid on an in-form Clint Dempsey? Does Dempsey have the gas to pester Bradley like Tyler Adams did and Federico Higuain did not?
Which is more influential in midfield: Cristian Roldan’s scurrying or Victor Vazquez’s smarts?
How will the battle of two of the best wide defenders in the league in Justin Morrow and Kelvin Leerdam look?
Will Alex Bono, Toronto’s playoff MVP thus far, deliver one more big-game performance to outduel Frei?
The opposition view
1. The Sounders are clearly a better, deeper team than in 2016. Who has been the most important addition this year?
There are nine players who played in the first four playoff games that weren’t on the active roster when Seattle and Toronto met in the 2016 final. That includes four to six starters, depending on what lineup is selected. Will Bruin is the new double-digit goalscorer. Kelvin Leerdam is the highest paid right-back in the league. Gustav Svensson just helped Sweden make the World Cup by beating Italy. Victory Rodriguez grew up in La Masia. Nouhou Tolo is the most unconventional (good) left-back in the league (though he doesn't always start). That's a lot of talent to bring in after winning MLS Cup (we’ve sometimes called it a rebuilding year that went really well).
But the biggest difference is Clint Dempsey. In 2017 he will not be watching from a box. He will be participating. Deuce has three goals in the 2017 playoffs. Only three teams have more goals in the playoffs than Clint does (Red Bulls, Crew and Vancouver). Clint has yet to play in an MLS Cup his team won. His two appearances with the Revolution were during their Losing Dynasty era. He watched the miracle of 2016 from the sidelines. But he's still hungry and he's not finished yet.
2. Brian Schmetzer seems a modest, understated kind of guy and perhaps flies under the radar as a result. What has made him the right fit for the Sounders?
It’s not about the tactics. Seattle’s system is not complex. It’s a rather stock 4-2-3-1 that can shift into a 3-1-5-1 in the attack with that width coming from the full-backs while one of the defensive midfielders sits in between the centre-backs. Usually the ‘wide’ mids are playing inverted and/or narrow. Most of the attackers press after a turnover. It isn’t complex, and will never win an award. Brian Schmetzer doesn’t win because of tactics.
Brian Schmetzer wins because of attitude. He has buy-in from every single player. They are willing to work harder for the city than they would under another coach. Seasoned vets with ‘bad attitudes’ influence the youngsters. Whether native sons, adopted family or mercenaries, every single player believes in Schmetz’s belief in Seattle. In a league with this much parity, under a GM that collects this level of talent, getting this level of buy-in means that Sounders win 55% of duels. They pick up more second balls. It’s tiny stuff at the margins.
There is no greater motivator than Brian Schmetzer, and yet he'll refuse to say it’s about him. At every opportunity he points to players and this city as the reasons for his success. It does not matter if he is right or wrong. It is said so frequently it is clear that he believes, and so we do, and so the players do.
3. Why should TFC fans be worried about history repeating itself?
Seattle is in middle of a shutout streak that runs not just to last MLS Cup, but to two games before it. No team has scored against the Sounders in the playoffs since the 13th minute of the first leg against Colorado in the 2016 Western Conference finals. The defence is not just good, but great. While on the season Seattle held teams to the third-fewest goals against (Sporks and TFC beat them), since adding Leerdam at right-back the team has 12 shutouts in his 18 starts. Only twice did teams score more than a single goal against the Sounders with Leerdam at right-back.
The defence that held TFC to no goals on 17 shots gives up fewer shots than it did, more frequently gets shutouts, and forces teams to shoot from distance. It isn't just about the right-back. Seattle applies pressure throughout the field, forcing bad passes that Cristian Roldan, Chad Marshall and Roman Torres can clean up.
TV channel & live stream
TV: TSN 1, 4 & 5 (Canada), ESPN (USA)
Stream: TSN Go (Canada), WatchESPN (USA), MLS Live (out of market)
Radio: TSN 1050 (Toronto), Kiro 97.3 FM (Washington)
Jozy Altidore will play through an ankle injury sustained against the Columbus Crew.
Otherwise, Toronto have no other injuries or suspensions. Seattle will be without utility man Brad Evans, while Brian Schmetzer ruled Osvaldo Alonso out on Wednesday.
Jordan Morris is fit but unlikely to start.
Toronto: Bono; Beitashour, Moor, Mavinga, Morrow; Delgado, Bradley, Osorio; Vazquez; Altidore, Giovinco.
Subs: Irwin, Zavaleta, Hagglund, Cheyrou, Ricketts, Cooper, Hasler.
Seattle: Frei; Leerdam, Torres, Marshall, Jones; Roldan, Svensson; Rodriguez, Dempsey, Lodeiro; Bruin.
Subs: Miller, Alfaro, Nouhou, Delem, Shipp, Neagle, Morris.