MLS can continue to add teams, it can tweak its playoff format and it can keep evolving, but it appears that no matter what, Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders still have as good a shot as anyone of being the last clubs standing.
For the third time in four seasons, MLS's championship comes down to match between TFC and Seattle. While the last two took place at BMO Field, the rubber match will go down at Seattle's CenturyLink Field. "We owe them a home game," TFC coach Greg Vanney joked after his side's win over defending champion Atlanta United Wednesday night.
Here's a look back at the previous two meetings along with a first look at the third one, with MLS's 2019 title on the line:
2016: Toronto 0, Seattle 0 (Sounders win 5-4 in penalties)
A largely forgettable, scoreless game was brought to life by Stefan Frei's heroics. The Sounders goalkeeper robbed Jozy Altidore and entered MLS lore with a transcendent save in extra time, and Seattle went on to win in PKs after Roman Torres followed Justin Morrow's miss with the decisive kick.
Seattle won without Clint Dempsey, who missed the latter portion of the season due to a heart condition. The season was transformative for Seattle for a couple of either reasons, too. The late Sigi Schmid was let go in July, paving the way for longtime club steward Brian Schmetzer to take over as manager, and Nicolas Lodeiro was brought in as a summer acquisition from Boca Juniors. The two remain fixtures of the club today.
Six of Seattle's players on the matchday roster are still on the current team, while eight of Toronto's will make the trip to the Pacific Northwest for the third meeting between the two sides.
2017: Toronto 2, Seattle 0
TFC exacted its revenge to win its first MLS Cup title. It was only appropriate that Altidore scored the game-winning goal after being denied a year earlier, and Victor Vazquez put the finishing touches on the win in stoppage time. The match came two months after the USA's failure to qualify for World Cup 2018, with Altidore and Michael Bradley's standing among U.S. fans at a tenuous place. But they became beloved in Canada, guiding their team to victory and putting the finishing touches on what was arguably the most successful season any MLS team has ever had.
In becoming the first Canadian team to win MLS Cup, TFC completed the treble–MLS Cup, Supporters' Shield, domestic cup–and, at the time, set a league record for most points in a season. That has since been bested twice, but neither the New York Red Bulls of 2018 or LAFC of 2019 went on to win MLS Cup.
Nine players from Toronto's matchday roster that night are still on the team, while Seattle will bring 13 holdovers to the third showdown.
2019: Seattle vs. Toronto, Nov. 10, 3 p.m. ET
The rubber match takes place at CenturyLink Field, where new stars introduce themselves to the final stage. For Seattle, Raul Ruidiaz will make his first final appearance, after being so influential in the conference final win over LAFC. For Toronto, it's Alejandro Pozuelo, the Sebastian Giovinco replacement, leading the Reds after a Best XI-caliber season.
TFC, which missed the playoffs altogether last season after unraveling following Concacaf Champions League final disappointment, has two major injury questions in Altidore and domestic trophy magnet Omar Gonzalez, who have yet to play a minute in the playoffs. That TFC has reached the final without them is a testament to the club's depth, the job done by GM Ali Curtis–who stepped in for the club's championship architect, Tim Bezbatchenko–and the steady hand of Vanney on the bench. TFC enters MLS unbeaten in 13 straight matches–the last 10 in the regular season and playoff wins over D.C., NYCFC and Atlanta.
Seattle, too, deserves credit for overcoming the abrupt retirement of center back rock Chad Marshall in May, the winter departure of midfield linchpin Osvaldo Alonso and finding a way to reach the final. GM Garth Lagerwey made the signings necessary, again, to get his club to a final, while Schmetzer has devised the plan to extract the most from his side.
In their only meeting this season, Seattle won 3-2 at home, with Will Bruin scoring twice in a match that thrilled unlike their previous Cup encounters. Bruin, though, tore his ACL in June, Marshall hadn't yet retired and Altidore was fully fit, scoring a double for Toronto as well. There's little stock to put in that result as it relates to how MLS Cup will play out.
Regardless, MLS may be evolving, but so, too, are these clubs. And it appears that they're as capable as anyone of adapting to the newest version of MLS and succeeding.