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Doug McIntyre’s MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.
As much as most neutrals were probably rooting for a marquee MLS Cup matchup between runaway Supporters’ Shield winners LAFC and defending champion Atlanta United, Seattle-Toronto 3.0 is a pretty excellent consolation prize.
There were just two upsets through the first two rounds of the playoffs (the LA Galaxy’s win in Minnesota and TFC’s triumph against New York City FC), but things went sideways in this week’s conference finals, with both Reds and Rave Green toppling the favorites with come-from-behind victories.
It sets up a big-time Nov. 10 finale in Seattle, one that might move the mainstream needle almost as much as LA-Atlanta would have.
About 70,000 are expected to pack into CenturyLink Field, which would be record for the facility and the second-highest attendance for an MLS Cup after Atlanta drew more than 73,000 last year. More than 50k seats had been snapped up by Thursday, according to Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer. The match kicks off at noon local/3 p.m. ET, and while it will be going up against a full slate of NFL games, the fact that it’s being broadcast on ABC in the United States should make for decent TV ratings.
In the city, the buzz will be electric. The Sounders are as relevant locally as any MLS team, and after both of the club’s two two previous MLS Cup appearances in 2016 and 2017 came in Toronto, they’re eager to put on a party at their place.
1. Seven years ago, I was interviewing Hanauer in a suite inside the stadium and asked what he felt the ceiling for the Sounders was. He didn’t hesitate. “Sixty-eight thousand seats,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder to the empty upper deck. The club was averaging about 43,000 per match at the time. They hit their high-water mark of 44,245 in 2015, but attendance has fallen in three of the last four years, to about 40k the last two.
There are surely several factors responsible for that recent dip — and every other MLS team save Atlanta would kill for those numbers — but hosting, and ideally winning, MLS Cup on home soil (so to speak) certainly wouldn’t hurt Hanauer’s chances of one day reaching his goal.
2. MLS continues to grow at such a rapid pace that the big storyline seems to change every season. Two years ago Toronto FC was the consensus best team in league history. Atlanta’s 2018 MLS Cup win, combined with their smashing off-field success, almost immediately turned TFC’s glorious campaign into an afterthought. This season, record-setting LAFC was the undisputed darling of MLS until being stunned by Seattle in the Western Conference final.
3. Which brings us back to the Reds. There’s been a lot of discussion over the last few days about how LAFC’s otherworldly regular season ought to be viewed in light of its playoff ouster. My take? You can’t be the best team ever without winning it all. Asked if Tuesday’s defeat diminished its otherwise stellar campaign, coach Bob Bradley admitted as much. “How can it not?” he said, per the Los Angeles Times.
4. Personally, I think Toronto’s unprecedented triple (Supporters Shield, Canadian Championship, MLS Cup) in 2017 puts them top all-time. Add in the penalty kick loss to the Sounders in 2016, another defeat in the tiebreaker in last year’s CONCACAF Champions League final, plus their surprise trip back to the domestic championship decider this year, and Toronto’s accomplishments during the Greg Vanney era appear even more impressive.
5. As Paul Tenorio and Sam Stejskal reported earlier this year, Michael Bradley’s $6.5 million option for 2020 will automatically trigger if TFC hoists the trophy later this month. If they don’t, could Bradley end up reuniting with his father at LAFC?
6. The Bradleys spent the 2005 MLS season together with the MetroStars (now New York Red Bulls). Bob also coached Michael for four years with the national team. For the record, I doubt it happens. But I do think the Black and Gold’s crushing defeat makes it more likely.
7. Either way, LAFC figures to be on the lookout for one or two playoff-proven reinforcements next season.
8. Same goes for Atlanta, although I get the sense they might spend more time searching outside the league. Frank de Boer’s second season in Georgia is going to be extremely interesting. Will Pity Martinez return? What about 36-year-old heart-and-soul-midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, whose contract expires next month? Losing Larentowicz and fellow vet Michael Parkhurst over the same winter would change the locker room considerably.
9. It’s great to see hugely likable Sounders boss Brian Schmetzer finally getting the credit he deserves in Seattle.
10. You know who else deserves more respect? TFC keeper Quentin Westberg, who has been excellent for Vanney and Co. since winning the starting job back in April.
11. How do we feel about the new playoff format now? The single-elimination matches have been exciting, no doubt. And it’s good that none of the four upsets so far came as the result of a controversial call (or non-call.) You can argue that, of course. But in every game, the team that deserved to win did.
12. That said, its pretty shocking to see how differently these playoffs have been officiated compared to regular season matches. Basically, the referees swallowed their whistles. I’m not sure that was expected. Going forward, it might change the calculations for coaches and front office staffs, who will have to build teams not just to succeed, but to be able to win extra-physical contests.
13. It always makes me uncomfortable to see teams celebrating conference titles like they mean something. I know I’m not alone. As a hockey guy, I also know there are two schools of thought on this even in the NHL, where for years teams didn’t dare touching the Prince of Wales or Clarence Campbell trophies because the only prize they wanted was the Stanley Cup. That unwritten rule has changed in recent time, but you still don’t see confetti cannons and champagne. Save that for the final, MLS.
14. Speaking of hockey — regular readers know that this column was inspired by Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts — this quote from none other than Wayne Gretzky himself caught my attention a few weeks back:
“In midseason, if an owner didn’t like a rule, the next day that rule would be changed,” Gretzky said of the 1970s and ‘80s NHL. “Now, there’s more communication between the GMs, the coaches, the league and the players – and everybody is trying to get on the same page to get the best results for the entire game, not just for each city or each team.”
15. It was a reminder that other North American sports leagues went through an evolution, too. MLS still plays fast and loose with the rules sometimes — the league’s bylaws give it the right to change any rule at any time — but it’s nothing like it used to be. As for getting all its stakeholders on the same page, how the looming CBA negotiations go over the next few months will tell us an awful lot about that.
16. Galaxy GM Dennis te Kloese says he’s going to talk to Zlatan Ibrahimovic about returning to Carson for a third season. As much as I would love to be a fly on the wall during that conversation, hearing the talks between Te Klose, coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto and team prez Chris Klein regarding Ibrahimovic’s future would be even more interesting.
17. Carlos Vela will deservedly be named MLS MVP on Monday at LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium. The question is, will Vela’s 34-goal regular season or his anonymous performance against Seattle be the lasting memory of Vela’s 2019?
18. What a difference a year makes for former Atlanta talisman Miguel Almiron, who is still looking for his first goal and assist for Newcastle. Kristan Heneage did a nice job breaking down the reasons for the Paraguayan’s struggles so far.
19. Was glad to see Red Bulls Sporting Director Denis Hamlett confirm that Chris Armas will return to the sidelines in New Jersey next season. Suffice to say 2020 will be a pivotal season for both men.
20. Really enjoyed Kim McCauley’s excellent deep dive into the future of the NWSL.
21. On Thursday, U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter summoned 20 MLS players for a “pre-camp” ahead of this month’s crucial CONCACAF Nations League matches against Canada and Cuba. Among the more interesting names on the list are New England Revolution keeper Matt Turner and Minnesota United defender Chase Gasper. Still was a little disappointed not to see Gasper’s Loons teammates Hassani Dotson and Mason Toye make the cut, although both should be included in Jason Kreis’s U.S. U-23 squad.
22. Many of these players will be released when the USMNT’s European-based contingent and those involved in MLS Cup report to Orlando beginning on Nov. 10. One under-the-radar player who could stick around? Colorado Rapids speedster Jonathan Lewis.
23. FC Dallas midfielder Paxton Pomykal wont be involved after he (along with FCD defender John Nelson) underwent surgery this week to repair a core muscle injury.
24. Pomykal is coming off a strong first season as an MLS starter, but can we please pump the brakes on the hype train and not be too disappointed if the 19-year-old doesn’t light the league up right out the gates next year? Sophomore seasons are always interesting for young players. I’m curious to see how Pomykal responds.
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