The MLS Cup rubber match no one expected concludes the 2019 season Sunday when the Seattle Sounders face Toronto FC to determine the league’s champion for the third time in four years.
The teams faced each other in 2016 and 2017, both times in Toronto, and each side’s lone MLS Cup has come at the expense of the other. The 2016 edition was the first MLS Cup to end 0-0, with the Sounders emerging victorious 5-4 in a six-round penalty shootout to cap a stunning mid-season turnaround under then-interim coach Brian Schmetzer.
Schmetzer – still in charge of the Sounders – brought Seattle back to Toronto and the MLS Cup final the following year, but the Reds proved too much this time as Jozy Altidore scored the go-ahead goal in the 67th minute before Victor Vazquez sealed the victory in stoppage time.
Both sides finished in the top half of their conference and had to knock off the top seed on the road to create this matchup. Seattle (19-8-10) was the No. 2 seed in the West but pulled off the bigger upset of the two, recording a 3-1 victory over Supporters’ Shield winner Los Angeles FC on Oct. 29 as Nicolas Lodeiro set up Raul Ruidiaz’s brace on either side of halftime around taking a goal of his own in the first half.
“Since the moment I came here, I wanted to play in a moment like this in a match like this,” Ruidiaz told the Seattle Times through an interpreter. “I’m very happy it’s going to happen. I want to do everything to make the city happy and give something to the club.”
The Peru international has been one of the offensive fulcrums for the club, leading the Sounders with 14 goals in just 25 matches across all competitions. His strike partner is Jordan Morris, who contributed 13 goals after making a full recovery from a torn ACL that forced him to miss the 2018 season.
Providing service to the duo is Lodeiro, who is furthering his legacy as one of the best midfielders in league history. The Uruguay international has racked up 16 assists to go with nine goals this season and has 28 goals and 46 assists in just 101 league contests since his arrival in the summer of 2016.
“When the guy who is your best player is your hardest worker, that sets a tone that nobody else can replicate,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey told The Athletic about Lodeiro. “You cannot come out here in training on a day-to-day basis and hide. Not only is he a role model for the young players, but he is a bar that everybody else has to reach.”
Toronto FC (16-11-10) had a series of Decision Day results go in its favor to claim home-pitch advantage in the first round as the No. 4 seed and never looked back. The Reds also claimed a top-seeded pelt en route to the MLS Cup final, knocking off New York City FC in the semifinals. Greg Vanney’s team then dethroned 2018 champion Atlanta United in the East final Oct. 30, shaking off an early goal allowed to win 2-1 on Nick DeLeon’s decisive marker from long range on 78 minutes.
“This year’s just been different,” Vanney told the league’s official website. “We had, what, two years of extreme success, really unprecedented success in the league, all the way through to the end of (last year’s Concacaf) Champions League. And from the end of Champions League we became a team that was a bit in flux, for different reasons, whether it be from injuries, contracts – there’s things that make a team unsettled a little bit. We had to go through those growing pains, get people healthy, we had to get contracts sorted out so that everybody could get focused again.”
The Reds also have a foreign star as their offensive linchpin. Alejandro Pozuelo was brought in to replace as much of the production Sebastian Giovinco provided as possible, and the Spaniard has not disappointed with 14 goals and 13 assists in 33 matches. Pozuelo has shown an ease playing as a traditional No. 10 or false No. 9, being deployed in the latter role out of necessity with Altidore sidelined.
The prospects of Altidore starting this game seem remote at best, and it also does not appear likely he will feature in any capacity for Toronto. When healthy, the U.S. international has been a lethal contributor with 11 goals and seven assists, netting a goal every 153.7 minutes, but he has missed a month with a quadriceps injury that has been frustratingly slow to heal.
“I haven’t played any soccer in a month. So that’s where I’m at,” Altidore told The Canadian Press. “I’m trying to jog and trying to change pace and trying to do those type of things. But like I said I have to let the muscle heal first or else you put yourself at risk.
“I’m not telling you no false truths or nothing like that. I’m actually being very candid. That’s where I am. I’m not happy about it but it is what it is.”
Quentin Westberg will be the third different Toronto FC keeper to face Seattle in the MLS Cup final, following Alex Bono in 2016 and Clint Irwin in 2017. Westberg, who took over the No. 1 duties from Bono mid-season, stopped a penalty to keep the Reds down 1-0 early versus Atlanta.
Between the other sticks, Stefan Frei will once again protect Seattle’s goal. Fifth on the all-time MLS wins list with 115, Frei has his own piece of MLS Cup history with a spectacular claw-out save of a looping header by Altidore in the 2016 final.
Seattle won the lone meeting between the teams in the regular season 3-2 at home in April. Ruidiaz missed the game through injury, but Wil Bruin scored on either side of halftime, completing his brace in the 66th minute with the go-ahead goal to make it 2-1. Pozuelo set up goals by Altidore in the 11th and 70th minutes, and Frei preserved the victory with a diving save to deny Pozuelo in stoppage time.