For a third time in four years, MLS Cup will come down to a battle between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders.
Toronto went into the home of defending champion Atlanta United, fell behind early, needed a penalty-kick save to not completely capitulate within 10 minutes and yet won 2-1 to capture the 2019 Eastern Conference title and advance to a rubber match with the Sounders.
TFC was out-possessed 60%-40% and out-shot 18-4, but Nicolas Benezet's curling equalizer in the first half and Nick DeLeon's long-range rocket in the second were all the Reds needed to return to the final.
"It wasn't beautiful soccer," Toronto manager Greg Vanney told FS1 after the match. "It was resiliency. There wasn't many statistical categories we won today."
He's right about that, but the one category TFC did win was the final score. The Nov. 10 matchup vs. Seattle–which upset Supporters' Shield winner LAFC Tuesday night–will take place at CenturyLink Field after the 2016 and 2017 finals, which each team won at BMO Field.
"We owe them a home game," Vanney deadpanned. It's a trip his resilient TFC will be happy to take.
Here are three thoughts on the result and the MLS Cup matchup:
A goal worthy of the moment
DeLeon has scored some sensational playoff goals in key moments in his career, but his most recent big playoff moment was a miss. After his fantastic goal that pushed D.C. United to penalty kicks vs. the Columbus Crew in last season's first round, he wound up missing the decisive spot kick, ending D.C.'s season.
Fast forward nearly a year to the day, and it's quite the dose of redemption for the eight-year MLS vet.
His goal was perfectly hit, a sublime right-footed strike after he peeled away from Atlanta defenders and turned into space. It definitely didn't hurt that nobody from Atlanta stepped to him to close down his shooting lane. Either Atlanta's defenders–Julian Gressel and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez were closest–didn't think he would have a go from there, or didn't think he was capable of connecting from such distance. Regardless, they were wrong.
An acrobatic, diving Brad Guzan had no shot to stop it, and DeLeon sent his team to MLS Cup.
Toronto rope-a-dopes its way to glory
TFC probably should've been toast after 10 minutes. Atlanta came out on fire, with Gressel scoring four minutes in. The club's two record signings connected to set up Gressel, with Ezequiel Barco playing Pity Martinez through after Michael Bradley kept the latter onside. Martinez unselfishly passed to his right on the breakaway, allowing Gressel to fire into an empty net.
Five minutes later, Bradley was whistled for a penalty, taking down Martinez (after Laurent Ciman's inexplicable and hopeless challenge that let him through) on what was a pretty soft but technically right call. Josef Martinez stepped to the spot with a chance to double the lead and put a golden spike into Toronto's neck. His chance was saved, though, one of a handful of big moments from Quentin Westberg on the night that kept Toronto afloat.
That was especially huge, because moments later, Nicolas Benezet curled in a beautiful right-footed chance–off a great cross-field feed from Ciman–to make it 1-1. That all took place in the opening 14 minutes of the match.
What followed was a calmer, chance-light affair dominated by the hosts. Atlanta established control, pinning Toronto deep in its end and possessing with regularity in the opposition's half. To TFC's credit, though, all that possession hardly resulted in dangerous chances.
As the second half unfolded with more of the same, TFC locked it down in the center of the park. Bradley overcame his horrid start, and the tide began to turn. All Toronto needed was one chance to make it happen for good, and DeLeon certainly provided that.
Seattle vs. Toronto: The trilogy
It's quite remarkable that the two finalists will meet again for the title. No matter the change to the playoff format, no matter the arrival of the hotshot expansion clubs in Los Angeles and Atlanta, no matter the comings and goings of the big-name stars, the two well-built franchises find themselves as the last ones standing again.
The 10 days of rest before the final will benefit both teams, of course, but probably more so Toronto. That TFC got out of the Eastern Conference without a minute from Jozy Altidore or Omar Gonzalez is incredible, but the Reds would be hard-pressed to win it all without them. Toronto labored in Atlanta and was fortunate not to be on the wrong side of a lopsided score, and reinforcements in the form of the two veteran U.S. internationals would go a long way in making it more of a fair fight.
If they can't go, though, the belief will certainly be there. You don't go through NYCFC and Atlanta away from home without gaining confidence every step of the way.
Of all the years for there to be a Seattle-Toronto final, this might not have felt like the most appropriate one, but the trilogy will be completed in the Pacific Northwest–just the second time two teams will have met in three MLS finals (LA Galaxy vs. New England, 2002, 2005, 2014).