- Between the stars on display and a first-time champion waiting to be crowned, the 2016 MLS Cup final features plenty to whet the appetite.
What a series. What a game. What a night.
The first MLS playoff series played exclusively north of the Canadian border followed up a thrilling first leg with 120 minutes, seven goals and absolute pandemonium on a rain-drenched yet euphoric evening in Toronto.
And now? What an MLS Cup matchup we have to look forward to.
We can only hope that next Saturday’s final (8 p.m. ET, FOX) between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders will reproduce half of the drama of Wednesday night’s Eastern Conference second leg. On paper, however, it certainly has the ability to. It will feature two star-laden teams–Toronto will surely hope that the apparent calf injury that forced Sebastian Giovinco out in extra time vs. Montreal will subside in time–that are enjoying unprecedented success. And in primetime with a sizable television audience expected, it’s an opportunity for TFC and Seattle to showcase the best of what the league has to offer.
When they met on July 2, they played to a 1-1 draw in Toronto, but that seems ages ago considering what has transpired for both clubs since. Here’s an early look at three talking points ahead of their Dec. 10 showdown:
Altidore and Morris, the present and future of USMNT forwards
There will be a strong U.S. national team presence at BMO Field next Saturday, and nowhere is that presence stronger than at the head of each team’s attack. Both Jozy Altidore and Jordan Morris put in man-of-the-match performances to propel their respective sides to the final, and they’ll be the talk of MLS over the next 10 days.
Morris’s leading role has been the more surprising of the two. A prime prospect ever since his national team call-up in August 2014, the Stanford product endured an up-and-down rookie year in MLS. He ran away with rookie of the year honors, but bagged just 0.38 goals per 90 minutes, and spurned chance after chance over the season’s first half as the Sounders sunk to the bottom of the Western Conference.
Morris forged on, though, as did the Sounders even without Clint Dempsey, and the young striker has come of age in the playoffs even as he’s battled the flu. He’s scored two, set up one, and generally terrorized Dallas and Colorado from the left wing. As Brian Straus wrote after Sunday’s 1-0 second-leg win in Colorado, in which Morris got the lone goal: "It was yet another milestone for Morris, who’s handled everything that has come his way during a season that’s been far more complicated and challenging than he’d imagined."
In fact, if it weren’t for Altidore’s recent exploits, there might be talk of a changing of the guard up top for the national team. But the 27-year-old has scored in all five of Toronto’s playoff matches—the first player in league history to score in five consecutive MLS playoff games—and he’s arguably in the form of his life. He’s winning individual duels, he’s creating for teammates, and he’s playing with passion, aggression and even at times finesse.
Altidore, it’s clear, is still very much the present for the U.S. at striker. Morris is the future. But another breakthrough on a big stage for the latter would push him even further into the present as well.
Bradley vs. Lodeiro will be key
The game’s top individual battle, even more enticing than Altidore’s clash with physical Seattle center back Roman Torres, is in the middle of the park, and it pits two Designated Players who have been pivotal throughout their respective teams’ runs to MLS Cup.
This could end up being more an on-paper matchup than an on-field one. Playmakers are often renowned for what they do on the ball, but Nicolas Lodeiro’s success is often a byproduct of his work off the ball. He’s always on the move, foraging for nooks and crannies in an opponent’s defensive shape. You can’t man-mark him.
But if anybody can, it’s Michael Bradley, who has the ability to cover as much ground as anyone in the league. He likely won’t track Lodeiro when the Uruguayan drops deep, but he’ll have to work side to side in front of Toronto’s back three to cut off supply lines and force the Sounders to find other avenues forward.
If Altidore and Morris take the crown for top narrative, it’s these two midfielders that will be at the center of the most compelling tactical battle.
An MLS Cup of firsts
Seattle’s ousting of Colorado guaranteed us two firsts. The obvious one: Neither Seattle nor Toronto (nor Montreal) has ever won a league title, nor even reached an MLS Cup. Toronto’s 10 years of dysfunction have been well documented, while Seattle, despite considerable regular season success, always folded in the playoffs. Both of those trends have perished.
The league’s 21st title match is also notable for another novelty, however: It’s the first of the 21 that won’t feature one of the league’s charter members.
Is there any meaning to derive from that fact? Maybe, maybe not. But the Sounders have written the book on how to thrive as an expansion team since joining the league in 2009, and Toronto’s front office has given a clinic in roster construction in MLS’s current climate, supplementing big-money Designated Players with seasoned veterans and affordable contributors.
With the game on broadcast television for the first time since 2008, and with conference finals and semifinals that provided excellent entertainment, it’s fair to assert that this year’s final is emblematic of a lot of what the current iteration of MLS is about.