There's always an inclination to find who's "next" and crown what's fresh, new and shiny, but for Atlanta United and Toronto FC, they'll happily live in the past.
The past two years, anyway.
The last two MLS Cup champions go head-to-head in Atlanta Wednesday night with a return trip to MLS's final stage on the line. After LAFC's loss to Seattle on Tuesday, the picture has changed for both sides. While internally both surely hold the belief they can beat LAFC on any given night, they also have to acknowledge that having the league's best regular-season team ever out of the picture opens up a more favorable path to lifting the trophy again.
So the stakes are set at Mercedes-Benz Stadium: Either MLS is left with a Seattle-Toronto final for the third time in four seasons (only this time played at CenturyLink Field after consecutive finals at BMO Field in 2016 and 2017), or Atlanta United hosts MLS Cup for a second straight year, looking to defeat another Pacific Northwest foe while becoming the first team to repeat as champion since the LA Galaxy in 2011 and 2012.
Atlanta and Toronto split their regular season meetings, with each winning at home. Atlanta took a 2-0 result in May, while Toronto FC won 3-2 in June. There's not much to really take from those games to apply to Wednesday's showdown. In both of those games, Toronto was without U.S. internationals Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez, with Altidore missing through injury and Gonzalez not yet signed, and both teams have evolved significantly from then.
Altidore and Gonzalez's availability on Wednesday could dictate plenty. Gonzalez is said to be fit, but Altidore appears to be a game-time call, and even if he plays it'll be off the bench.
TFC coach Greg Vanney told TSN that Altidore was slated to have a follow-up MRI on Tuesday that would determine his availability. Reading between the lines, he'll miss out again.
"The odds of him starting are very low," Vanney said. "The odds of him playing a role, I think, are the same. It's a question of how much and what he can do. What the MRI tells us is how much healing has taken place. Like I've said many times, he won't be at 100%. The question is at what percentage will he be at and at what risk does that play."
It's to Toronto's credit that it has reached the conference final, beating D.C. United and NYCFC along the way without the two lineup staples and relying on the dynamic Alejandro Pozuelo for an attacking spark.
Atlanta has overcome injury as well, with center back rock Miles Robinson missing both matches with a hamstring pull suffered on international duty with the USA and Michael Parkhurst missing the conference semifinal with a shoulder injury suffered in the first-round win over New England. Manager Frank de Boer has shown flexibility in his lineup to compensate, opting for a three-man back line vs. the Revolution and a four-man unit vs. the Philadelphia Union. The latter setup allowed for him to play Pity Martinez, Josef Martinez and Ezequiel Barco at the same time, a trio that's tough to rival in terms of attacking skill.
Center back Florentin Pogba and left back Mikey Ambrose have been called on to fortify the defense, and they've done just that, with Atlanta not yet conceding a goal in two playoff wins.
Either way, something will give. Either Toronto's run of success–it's unbeaten in 12 games dating back to the regular season–despite a key absence will end, or Atlanta's run as league champion will come to a halt and give MLS the third installment of the TFC-Seattle title trilogy.