Toronto FC, Seattle Both a Step Closer to Returning to MLS Cup

Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders are no strangers to the MLS Cup stage in recent years, and they're both still alive after surviving their respective conference semifinals.
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Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders played each other in MLS Cup in 2016 and 2017, and they both took a step toward potentially meeting on the big stage in 2019 Wednesday night.

Toronto FC went into emergency venue Citi Field and knocked off No. 1-seed NYCFC, 2-1, while Seattle broke through to beat Real Salt Lake, 2-0, to advance to their respective conference finals.

Toronto will hit the road again and play either at Atlanta United or the Philadelphia Union, while Seattle will either host the LA Galaxy or head to LAFC in the conference finals.

Here's a closer look at the first half of the conference semifinal round, with the remaining games slated for Thursday night:

Alejandro Pozuelo leads Toronto FC over NYCFC

Alejandro Pozuelo, the king of Queens

Something about playing NYCFC brings the goals out of Alejandro Pozuelo. Though Wednesday night, that something was provided and gift-wrapped by NYCFC's defense.

Pozuelo's fourth and fifth goals against NYCFC this season were handed to him, the first by Maxime Chanot's backward header, the second on a boneheaded challenge by Ronald Matarrita, and just like that, the Eastern Conference's top seed is out. Such are the downside and fine margins of single elimination.

NYCFC largely has itself to blame. Perhaps there was a rust factor after not having played for 17 days, and perhaps the club struggled without the services of star striker Heber from the start. But the hosts were awfully lethargic until Pozuelo waltzed in thanks to Chanot's mistake.

That seemed to light the spark, and suddenly NYCFC was coming in waves, forcing Toronto to absorb pressure until it finally broke, with MLS assist leader Maxi Moralez teeing up Ismael Tajouri-Shradi for a fine first-time finish.

Extra time seemed inevitable until Matarrita lost his mind. Richie Laryea, who has shown out for Canada and Toronto FC in recent weeks, turned the corner on his fullback counterpart, who wound up engaging in a rash, sliding challenge from behind. Pozuelo stepped to the spot and went for a stone-cold Panenka, chipping down the center to deliver the winner.

It took a diving save from Quentin Westberg in the 95th minute to deny Valentin Castellanos and make it stand up, but Toronto got the job done. That it did so without having to rush Jozy Altidore or Omar Gonzalez back into action–Altidore wasn't available at all, while Gonzalez was on the bench–is a boon for the club, which has another week to get to full strength.

TFC is unbeaten in its last 12 games now, has the chance to get stronger and possesses the veteran experience and knowhow to not be shook by a road test at a higher seed. Look out.

Seattle Sounders oust Real Salt Lake from the MLS playoffs

Seattle breaks through to end RSL's season, Rimando's career

The Sounders' home playoff run continues, with the club still riding its six-year streak of not losing in the postseason at home following its win over RSL.

For a second straight game, Seattle conceded the bulk of possession to the away side. After giving FC Dallas 53% of the ball, that number jumped by nearly 10% Wednesday, with RSL bossing the ball. For all of RSL's possession, though, it hardly generated anything that resembled a threat to Stefan Frei's goal.

By contrast, Seattle didn't have much of the ball, but it had its fair share of quality chances, with Nick Rimando denying the Sounders at every turn until the dam finally broke just after the hour mark. For all the creativity Seattle thought it needed, it took a simple near-post run and flicked-on header from Gustav Svensson to get on the board with the club's seventh chance on frame. The game was then put out of reach in the 81st minute on a classy Nicolas Lodeiro finish.

The reason it took so long, naturally, was the all-time MLS great, Rimando. He made a series of instinctive saves–seven in all–looking as capable as he did in Seattle 10 years ago, when RSL beat the LA Galaxy in penalties to win its only MLS Cup title thanks in large part to Rimando's heroics. His departure from Seattle won't be nearly as jovial this time around, but the 40-year-old can walk away knowing he did everything he could as he closes the door on a sensational 20-year career.

What it all means for MLS Cup

Well, for starters, the nightmare scenario (for those not part of NYCFC's organization and its supporters, anyway) of staging MLS Cup at Yankee Stadium is off the table. NYCFC would've hosted any Western Conference team outside of LAFC had it reached the final. That's not happening, and MLS is spared of the optics that it would've entailed.

The third chapter of the Toronto-Seattle trilogy also remains in play. Only the LA Galaxy and New England Revolution have met that many times on the final stage, though their meetings came in 2002, 2005 and 2014. If Toronto and Seattle can each win one more game, they'll make it three times in four years.

If Toronto is to advance to the final, it'll play away from home. Of all the remaining teams in the playoffs, TFC had the fewest regular-season points. Seattle still holds hope of hosting, provided it beats whichever L.A. team advances and then faces either Philadelphia or Toronto for the title.

There's still a ways to go before either side can mull over its final plans, and what happens in Thursday night's conference semifinals will dictate plenty, but these two modern-era MLS Cup veterans are both a step closer to getting there.