MLS Cup 2017 will feature a familiar cast.
Toronto FC authored the best season in league history to once again secure home-field advantage in their return to the title clash, and will welcome back the visiting Seattle Sounders, who cruised through the playoffs to earn a rematch of the 2016 showpiece Saturday afternoon at BMO Field.
It promises to be tightly contested, but is expected to be a more expansive affair than the nail-biting 0-0 draw that resulted in a penalty shootout that went in the Sounders’ favour 12 months ago. While much of the two rosters returned this season, there have been significant tweaks and improvements to each starting lineup.
Here are the matchups that will be key in deciding which team gets its hands on the MLS Cup on Dec. 9.
Stefan Frei vs. Alex Bono
Not only was Stefan Frei last year’s final MVP, his stop on Jozy Altidore, which became known as ‘The Save,’ was so important the goalkeeper had it permanently commemorated with a star tattoo on his left hand. The 31-year-old Swiss native saved Michael Bradley’s penalty for eight total stops on his most memorable night, and has yet to concede a score in this year’s playoffs. While Toronto has been goal-shy in the postseason, Frei will surely have to come up big again to give his team a shot at a repeat.
He’ll face a different opposite number this year, with 23-year-old Alex Bono firmly cementing the No. 1 spot in Toronto’s goal. Bono replaces Clint Irwin, who found himself warming the bench as TFC set a MLS regular season point record en route to the Supporters Shield. The youthful Bono has matured into a confident voice in the backline and was the standout performer as the Reds squeezed past the Red Bulls and then Columbus in the Eastern Conference Final. On a night when nerves are sure to play a role, Bono’s ability to control and channel his will be vital to stopping the free-scoring Sounders.
Clint Dempsey vs. Michael Bradley
In a year of heartbreak for the U.S. national team, Saturday’s title game provides a shot at a degree of redemption for stalwarts of the stars and stripes, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley.
After missing out on the entire 2016 playoff run with an irregular heartbeat, Dempsey has shown his big-time calibre in this year’s postseason. Three goals en route to a second straight Western Conference Championship took the 34-year-old past Nicolas Loderio for the most postseason goals in Sounders franchise history. Playing behind first-year Sounder Will Bruin, who tasted MLS Cup defeat twice in his time with Houston, Dempsey will play the pivot in a markedly more potent offence than what took the field in Toronto last December. The Sounders are likely to take a cautious approach from the whistle on Saturday, but with Dempsey in form and international teammate Jordan Morris keen to play super-sub off the bench, TFC’s backline is in for a test.
Having marshalled the home side to back-to-back finals, captain Michael Bradley will be keen to make sure the Reds finish on the right side of the decision this year. If the despair of missing out of the World Cup isn’t enough for the USMNT captain, the 30-year-old will also look to make amends for his missed penalty in last year’s shootout loss. Bradley has had another stellar season, playing significantly more minutes than any of his teammates. The arrival of Victor Vasquez in the offseason took a significant chunk of pressure off Bradley to create offensively, cementing the latter’s role as a midfield enforcer. When TFC are under pressure, Bradley has often dropped deep into the backline and he averages more passes per game (76.8) than anyone else in the league. Bradley doesn’t shirk a challenge, and they don’t come any bigger than this weekend.
Victor Rodriguez vs. Victor Vasquez
Cristian Roldan and Gustav Svensson will be tasked with marking TFC’s playmaker Victor Vasquez, but it’s the comparison with his namesake and countryman that could decide the colour of the ribbons hanging from the MLS Cup come six o’clock on Saturday.
After spending his entire career in Spain, diminutive midfielder Victor Rodriguez only joined Seattle in August. The 28-year-old didn’t see immediate minutes but has played a key role in the playoffs, posting a goal and two assists. However, like Vasquez, Rodriguez’s impact on the boxscore is not always measured in the stats column. His movement and ability to pull defenders out of position makes him dangerous, even to a defence as stingy as Toronto’s. With an equally tricky Nicolas Lodeiro scampering around, TFC’s midfield will have their hands full. Furthermore, their backline will have to reckon with Rodriguez’s willingness to dribble and attack the defence with the ball at his feet. Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer will be tempted to shuffle the pack once more and leave one of his magicians on the bench, but Seattle’s best form of defence may be possession. Rodriguez, who has shown a commitment to tracking back as a two-way player in addition to his silky feet, may be the man for the occasion.
On the other side is a fellow FC Barcelona product. Toronto’s Victor has proved to be the key offseason addition that has many calling this Toronto FC team the best in MLS history. The veteran playmaker’s presence has provided more time and space for Sebastian Giovinco. Instead of dropping back to receive the ball and launch atomic attacks from deep, the Italian striker now finds himself on the end of delicious through balls. Only Red Bulls’ Sasha Kljestan has more assists than Vasquez (16) this season. Vasquez is less of a dribbler than Rodriguez and certainly doesn’t have the same gas in his legs on the defensive end, but ultimately that’s not his job. Despite being snubbed for newcomer of the year, Vasquez made MLS look like child’s play for much of the regular season. After missing a penalty in the Eastern Conference Final, however, he now knows how fine the margins of victory can be.
Roman Torres vs. Jozy Altidore
Jozy Altidore will face off once more with Roman Torres — the man who put the final dagger in Toronto hearts last December with the converted winning penalty at frigid BMO Field.
Torres has already had a 2017 to remember after scoring the goal that sent Panama to its first-ever World Cup. In last year’s edition of MLS Cup, he led a defence that blocked 10 TFC shots and said, ‘through us, you shall not pass.’ This year, Seattle’s riding a 10-hour shutout streak behind Torres and his partner at centre back, Chad Marshall. Lacking pace, Torres’ strengths are his positioning and timing of tackles. Expect him to put his body on the line again.
Altidore will carry an ankle injury into the final, but after his heroics against Columbus in the Eastern Conference decider, there is simply no writing this man off. In the 108th minute of last’s years contest, the 28-year-old was careening away to celebrate a winning goal when Stefan Frei clawed his header out with a miraculous left paw. This year, he’s keen to be the main protagonist in the game’s deciding moments, rather than the supporting cast. That’s just the way he’s wired. If his ankle holds up in the cold weather, don’t bet against the big man.
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