2019 MLS Cup anything but a dead rubber
Background image: Tim Weeks, CC BY-SA 2.0
On Wednesday evening, the Washington Nationals defeated the Houston Astros 6-2 in the deciding Game 7, winning their first World Series. It was also the first time in 114 World Series that the travelling team won every game. The phenomenon appears to be contagious. On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, the other Major League [Soccer] staged its Western and Eastern Conference finals. Again, the road teams won. That does not bode well for 2019 MLS Cup hosts Seattle Sounders.
The Emerald City franchise defeated Bob Bradley’s LAFC at Banc of California Stadium in the Western Conference final, replying within ten minutes to Eduard Atuesta’s opener just after the quarter-hour with a pair from Raul Ruidiaz and Nicolas Lodeiro. Ruidiaz killed off the match on 64 minutes with his second. LAFC talisman Carlos Vela couldn’t add to his 37 goals. Argentine sensation Diego Rossi was also quiet, leaving Bradley’s wings two wins shy of matching Atlanta United’s 2018 feat of winning the MLS Cup in their sophomore season.
Nor will the defending champions repeat. The Five Stripes couldn’t defend Mercedes Stadium against Toronto FC in the Eastern Conference final even though they opened the scoring as well. Julian Gressel’s fifth-minute goal was cancelled by Nicolas Benezet on the quarter-hour. Nick DeLeon potted the winner for the Reds on 78 minutes when the Atlanta defence thought that stopping him at the border [aka the edge of the box] was enough. If Donald Trump knew they played soccer in his America, he'd send out a one-word tweet. Sad.
When the Canadians invade Century Link Field on Sunday 10 November, scoring first will be on both sides’ minds, as will adding a second to put down any fight-back from their opponent.
There will be few surprises, however. The franchises know each other too well. This is the third time in four years that Seattle and Toronto contest the MLS Cup. The Sounders won in 2016, the Reds in 2017.
Both squads 'took a break' in 2018 while the teams retooled.
Seattle striker Clint Dempsey retired early in the campaign. Strike partner Obafemi Martins had already departed for the Chinese Super League, leaving 29-year-old Will Bruin to pick up the slack. Bruin was phased out this season, picking up two goals and an assist in ten matches, half of them as a substitute. Long-time defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso also moved on to Minnesota United.
Manager Brian Schmetzer sets up his new lineup in a 4-2-3-1 with his fullbacks bombing forward much like Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Right-back Kelvin Leerdam picked up five goals and two assists. Left-back Brad Smith logged five assists. The playmaker is Uruguayan Nicolas Lodeiro [9G/10A], ably assisted by Christian Roldan [6G/4A] on his left. Raul Ruidiaz leads the line with 14 goals and four assists but local boy Jordan Morris, finally healthy after a cruciate ligament injury cost him 310 days and 40 matches, sets up anywhere in attack and is responsible for 13 goals and six assists. Long-time keeper Stefan Frei still mans the sticks with Korean Kee-hee Kim and either Panamanian Roman Torres or Colombian Xavier Arreaga in front of him.
Under new GM Ali Curtis and without Italian No.10 Sebastian Giovinco who piled up 83 goals and 51 assists in four seasons, TFC boss Greg Vanney spent much of 2019 tinkering to find his best XI and formation. He tried three and four at the back, as many as five in midfield, both flat and in diamonds, even a 4-1-4-1 and 4-4-2 double 6. Rumour has it he had Claudio Ranieri on speed dial. Towards the end of the campaign, he settled on a flexible 4-3-3 that carried the Reds to the final.
In addition to selling Giovinco to Saudi club Al-Hilal, Toronto rebuilt its defence. Quentin Westburg took over for Alex Bono in goal. Two centre-backs with ties to Los Angeles signed. Ex-LAFC captain Laurent Ciman returned to MLS after an off-season stint with Dijon in France. Former Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez signed mid-season from Atlas in Liga MX. Captain Michael Bradley continues to shield the defence.
Jozy Altidore still leads the line although nagging injuries limited him to 23 appearances and 11 goals on the season. Vanney’s attacking strength is his midfield. Alejandro Pozuelo  and Nick DeLeon  combined for two dozen goals. Jonathan Osorio added another seven. In part, that is down to Altidore’s hold-up ability. The American international created eight goals for teammates but just about everyone in the centre of the park for the Reds contributed creatively, with 26 assists as a group. Pozuelo , Osorio  and Marky Delgado  did the heavy lifting.
The third matchup in four years between the same two sides might lead some to believe MLS is top-heavy. There is certainly a concentration of talent in certain areas but it isn’t limited to these two franchises. Whether or not Zlatan Ibrahimovic returns to the Galaxy, Los Angeles now features two strong organizations. Atlanta isn’t going anywhere. Bruce Arena laid the foundation for a New England Revolution when he took over that team in mid-season. Meanwhile, the two New York squads continue to sit on the doorstep, trying to gain entry to an MLS Cup final. That spells competition across the country and just the right balance of power to carve out some history.