Toronto gets revenge over Sounders to complete historic treble – Exclusive photos from the 2017 MLS Cup Final

For the first time in MLS history, a Canadian side has won the MLS Cup. Toronto FC claimed the 2017 MLS Cup Final with a 2-0 win over Seattle Sounders on Saturday night, completing a historic treble after an almost faultless year. They have been the best team by a margin this year and have now been rewarded with their first MLS Cup title.

They dominated the game from start to finish but could not get past Stefan Frei, as the game started to feel like a repeat of the 2016 Final in which Seattle stunned the hosts on penalties.

But after 66 minutes, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore took the game by the scruff of the neck and broke Seattle’s resolve. Giovinco’s pass put Altidore through and the powerful striker coolly finished past the once again excellent Frei.

The goal woke the Sounders up but not enough as Toronto withstood the late pressure and then sealed the win with a stoppage time tap-in from Victor Vazquez. That goal sent BMO Field into raptures as they knew a decade’s worth of pain was over. They’d got revenge. They’d won the title. And they have probably earned the tag as the ‘greatest MLS side of all time’.

Check out exclusive photos from the 2017 MLS Cup Final below, courtesy of Jil Hendershot.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Advertisements

2017 MLS Cup Final Preview and Prediction: Toronto FC vs Seattle Sounders

2017 MLS Cup Final: Toronto FC vs Seattle Sounders

BMO Field – Saturday, December 9 – 16:00 ET (21:00 BST)

Match Odds: Toronto 4/5 – Draw 23/10 – Seattle 7/2

2017 MLS Cup Final – Toronto FC vs Seattle Sounders: Preview

Here we go again! Toronto FC vs Seattle Sounders. It’s the same MLS Cup Final matchup for the second-straight season. And just like last year, the two sides will battle it out at Toronto’s BMO Field to be crowned 2017 Major League Soccer champion.

For the past two seasons, Toronto and Seattle have been the league’s best two sides. So it makes sense that both have made back-to-back MLS Cup Finals. For Seattle, it’s about defending their cup. For Toronto, it’s about revenge.

Seattle Sounders celebrate winning the 2016 MLS Cup Final in Toronto. (Photo: Denise McCooey)

This will be just the third MLS Cup rematch in league history. The previous two occasions saw the same side win both finals – Houston Dynamo over New England in 2006 & 2007 and LA Galaxy over Houston Dynamo in 2011 & 2012. But the Seattle Sounders come into Saturday’s final as underdogs once again.

Toronto have had one of, if not the greatest, MLS seasons ever. They convincingly ran away with the Supporters’ Shield. They won the Canadian Championship. Now they just need to go one better than they did last year to become the first side to win a treble, which would surely guarantee the Toronto 2017 team’s status as ‘the greatest MLS side ever’.

They’ve not had an easy playoff route to this year’s showpiece event though. They narrowly edged past the Red Bulls on the away goals rule before beating Columbus 1-0 on aggregate after a nervy two-legged Eastern Conference Final.

But what matters more than anything for the hosts is that they have the chance to put last year’s miserable penalty shootout lost right. They wouldn’t have wanted any other MLS Cup opponent than the Sounders. Form tends to go out the window in these games so it’s all about Toronto handling the occasion.

The Seattle Sounders didn’t have the most impressive of regular season campaigns but did come good when it mattered most once again: Down the stretch. They’ve kept momentum going – just as they did last year – and have been exceptional in the playoffs.

A 2-0 aggregate win over Vancouver was followed up by a 5-0 aggregate win over Houston to claim the Western Conference Championship for the second successive year. They have added well to the squad that won last year’s final. The likes of Will Bruin and Victor Rodriguez will be looking to continue their impressive form in Saturday’s showdown.

But it’s the return of Clint Dempsey that’s making all the headlines. The US soccer legend was ruled out of last year’s run to glory with a heart problem that was eventually cleared. Now he’s back and hungry to be a part of his team’s success.

Toronto FC have their own weapons. Like last year, the focus will be on Designated Players Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley. But Victor Vazquez has been incredibly good in his debut campaign and will look to provide the spark that was missing in last year’s final.

These two sides have only met once since last year’s showpiece event. That came back in May as Toronto ran out 1-0 winners at CenturyLink Field, courtesy of an early Altidore penalty. But Toronto haven’t recorded a home win over the Sounders for over seven years, with their last victory coming back in April 2010.

2017 MLS Cup Final – Toronto FC vs Seattle Sounders: Team News

Toronto FC’s only injury concern ahead of Saturday’s final is Jozy Altidore. The striker was hurt in the second-half of the Conference Final win over Columbus but fought on to score the decisive goal. He won’t let an ankle problem keep him out of a game like this either.

Seattle Sounders will definitely be without Brad Evans as the defender is still sidelined with that back problem. Osvaldo Alonso has also been ruled out just a couple of days before the final in what is a blow for the defending champions. However, they’ve coped well without him over the past three months and will hope to continue.

2017 MLS Cup Final – Toronto FC vs Seattle Sounders: Key Points

Toronto FC’s last five: D/W/L/D/W

Seattle Sounders’ last five: W/D/W/W/W

Key Stat: Shutout – The Sounders have kept up their reputation of being almost impossible to breakdown in playoff football. They’ve kept four-straight clean sheets in this year’s playoffs and haven’t conceded in the postseason in six consecutive games, including last year’s final win at Toronto.

Key Player: Victor Vazquez – Toronto’s Spanish playmaker has enjoyed a fine debut season in MLS and he could be the man to prove the difference. He wasn’t a part of last year’s final but likes to play between the lines and could exploit the Sounders defence, who will have Altidore and Giovinco to contend with. In a game that’s expected to be tight, Vazquez could be the man to make the difference.

2017 MLS Cup Final – Toronto FC vs Seattle Sounders: Prediction

Toronto FC 1-1* Seattle Sounders – This is surely going to be one of the most intriguing finals in recent years, not least because it’s a rematch in which the defending champions remain underdogs. Toronto are expected to win, but it was the same case last season. The Sounders enjoy playing with house money, so to speak, and will be looking forward to trying to cause another major upset and defend their title. Goals will surely be on offer this time, but don’t be surprised to see this one go beyond the 90 minutes again. And if it does, it’s hard to look past the Sounders…

MLS Playoffs Preview and Prediction: Columbus Crew vs Toronto FC

2017 MLS Cup Playoffs – Eastern Conference Final (1st Leg): Columbus Crew vs Toronto FC

MAPFRE Stadium – Tuesday, November 21 – 20:00 ET (01:00 GMT)

Match Odds: Columbus 19/20 – Draw 11/5 – Toronto 2/1

Columbus Crew vs Toronto FC: Preview

The MLS Cup Playoffs continue on Tuesday night with the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship. Columbus Crew welcome Toronto FC to MAPFRE Stadium in a game which has had plenty of people talking.

Columbus Crew weren’t tipped by the masses to make it this far considering they finished 5th in the East in the regular season. However, their playoff form has made people sit up and take note. They will be relishing the chance to try and take a lead away to Toronto in the second leg.

They have been spurred on by off-field uncertainties surrounding the team’s future location. A special atmosphere is expected on Tuesday night, considering this could be the final game at MAPFRE Stadium.

This is a big chance for Crew to do what they did to NYCFC in the previous round in their home fixture. They have won seven of their last eight at MAPFRE and given the absentees for Toronto there is every chance they can do it again.

Embed from Getty ImagesToronto FC have already secured a double this season and are aiming for the first treble in MLS history. But, those missing key players are going to have a huge impact on the game.

Sebastian Giovinco, arguably the frontrunner for the MVP award is suspended as is his strike partner Jozy Altidore. No matter how well a squad can perform on their day, missing two superstars is a concern for the very best teams.

Greg Vanney will be looking for his side to pull together here and make it difficult for their opponents. They cannot afford to fall to the sword in the first leg like NYCFC did at the hands of Columbus.

If they can take a draw or a low scoring margin of defeat into the second leg they’ll fancy their chances. That said, there is no chance they won’t be playing for the win.

Columbus Crew vs Toronto FC

via @TorontoFC on Twitter

Columbus Crew vs Toronto FC: Team News

Columbus Crew have no suspensions ahead of the first leg. However Hector Jimenez, Artur, Josh Williams and Mohammed Abu are going to have to be careful not to pick up a booking, as it will rule them out of the return fixture. Alex Crognale, Gaston Sauro, Ben Swanson and Connor Maloney are all out through injury.

Toronto FC are without Giovinco and Altidore through suspension, but will return for the second leg. Drew Moor and Victor Vazquez are doubtful to make it into the squad as they continue to recover from injury.

Columbus Crew vs Toronto FC: Key Points

Columbus Crew’s last five: W/D/W/W/L

Toronto’s last five: W/W/D/W/L

Key Stat: 32 goals missing – The absence of Giovinco and Altidore means Toronto are missing two players who have netted a combined 32 goals in 2017.

Key Player: Ola Kamara – The Columbus Crew forward has 19 goals to his name this season. He will be expected to provide the goals to put his side in a commanding position after the first leg.

Embed from Getty ImagesColumbus Crew vs Toronto FC: Prediction

Columbus Crew 2-1 Toronto FC – Given the squads ahead of this game it would be surprising to see Columbus Crew not take a lead into the second leg. However, Toronto FC are more than a two-man team. They have only lost one of their last nine games on the road and will be out to prove a point in such a big game. It’s going to be a tactical battle which should set up the second leg to be an even better game next week.

Could MLS find success by following the NFL in sending teams to Wembley?

It’s no secret that Major League Soccer’s growth is continuing to turn heads. Not only is the league attracting some of Europe’s best footballing talent, but its expansion is showing no signs of slowing down, with new franchises bursting onto the scene at an alarming rate.

But what if Major League Soccer followed in the footsteps of the NFL and brought competitive fixtures to the UK, at Wembley?

The NFL’s success in England has been staggering since the International Series’ inception saw competitive fixtures start being played across the pond a decade ago. The fact it’s a different sport helps massively with the attraction, but there is an ever-growing support base of UK-based MLS fans, so there is certainly an opportunity for MLS to do something similar in the coming years.

Embed from Getty Images

Driving up interest for a fixture would arguably be easier for MLS. Instead of bringing over a regular season game, a fixture similar to those played in the International Champions Cup format each summer could work well in Britain. A side from MLS playing a top Premier League club at Wembley in front of 90,000 soccer-crazed fans would make for some spectacle.

You only have to look at the interest that the MLS All-Stars fixture garners each year – with this season’s instalment seeing Real Madrid take on the best of MLS in Chicago on August 2. Allowing English fans to watch their favourite club face off against an MLS outfit firsthand here in the UK would surely heighten the league’s growth.

A mini-league could even be an option. Let’s say, for example, the top side from both the Eastern and Western Conference come to Wembley and play against the Premier League’s first and second place teams each year. The Premier League clubs could each face the two MLS sides, with the showcase finale allowing the two MLS sides to battle it out on the same field at the end of the tournament.

There are plenty of options to be explored if the league’s expansion overseas steps up over the coming seasons and MLS would undoubtedly put on a great show. The ideas above are simply just suggestions in their rawest form. But we would love to see MLS teams showcased on UK soil in the near future.

Have your say below – Would you like to see MLS teams play in the UK? And which MLS clubs would you most like to see play at a stadium like Wembley?

Three reasons FC Dallas can win a first MLS Cup title this season

FC Dallas picked up a fifth win of the season with their comprehensive 3-0 victory at Real Salt Lake on Saturday night. They are still the only unbeaten side in MLS this term and are on track to retain their Supporters’ Shield title come the end of the season. But the club know they need to lift the MLS Cup trophy, given how well they’ve developed over the past three years.

Despite playing in all 22 MLS seasons to date (including the current campaign), FC Dallas have only been to one MLS Cup Final, in which they lost 2-1 to Colorado in extra-time in 2010. Since then, they’ve only won two of their six playoff games and were eliminated by eventual champions Seattle last year in their Western Conference semifinal clash.

Many felt Dallas were the team to beat heading into the 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs. They had just lifted a first-ever Supporters’ Shield and topped the West with 60 points for the second-successive year. On top of that, Dallas also lifted last season’s US Open Cup, becoming the first MLS team to win a double since 2014. Their priority this year is to get their hands on that elusive MLS Cup and here are three reasons why they look set to do it.

Consistency

Oscar Pareja’s men have picked up 18 points from their first eight games of the 2017 season. That’s one more than they had after eight games in 2016 and four more than they had in 2015. They have finished with 60 points in each of the last two seasons – an amount that has been enough to win the Supporters’ Shield for the past two seasons, and only missed out on the 2015 title as a result of an inferior goalscoring record to the Red Bulls.

Embed from Getty Images

Major League Soccer is impossible to predict week-to-week and yet Dallas remain competitive, no matter the circumstances. They have the ninth-smallest wage bill in the league with the youngest team in the league and seem to have depth all over the field. They have only lost one of their last 16 regular season games in total and haven’t suffered back-to-back defeats for 12 months.

Fitness

One of the key reasons Dallas remain so consistent is the fact they can run until the very last kick of the game. They don’t score many early goals – they are the only team yet to score in the first 30 minutes of a game this year – but they have scored 90% of their goals this season in the second half and their relentless pressure often pays off. The young legs throughout the side help, but Pareja and his coaching staff deserve great credit for ensuring fitness levels are always impressively high.

Home record

We all know a strong home record provides a platform for success in football. It’s the case all over the world but it’s imperative in MLS, given the long-distance travel teams have to endure for road games over the course of a campaign. For Dallas, Toyota Stadium is a fortress. They have only lost one of their last 29 MLS games at home and have won 74% of their home matches over the past two seasons.

Dallas are good wherever they play but whenever they take to the field in front of their own supporters, they seem to play with even more confidence and never look like losing. If they can keep that going over the remainder of this term, they should put themselves in a position to win a second-successive Supporters’ Shield, as well as a first MLS Cup title in December.

MLS 2017 Season Preview and Predictions

The 2017 MLS Season is here at last. A record-high 22 teams will battle for this year’s MLS Cup in what is Major League Soccer’s 22nd season. Two new expansion franchises enter the league this year, with Atlanta United joining the Eastern Conference and Minnesota United joining the West, while Orlando City’s brand new soccer-specific stadium will host MLS matches for the first time too. The top six in each conference will make the playoffs once again, but with 11 sides now in each, things are sure to be more competitive than ever before in what could be the most unpredictable season in the league’s history.

Embed from Getty Images

The New Boys

It’s been a busy offseason for Atlanta and Minnesota, with both sides dealing with the challenge of building a squad that can jump straight into MLS and compete. No expansion side has made the playoffs at the first attempt since the Sounders did in 2009, and that will undoubtedly be the aim for both of this year’s new sides in 2017.

Atlanta have splashed the cash to build a team that, on paper at least, looks good enough to earn a place in the postseason at the first attempt. Former Barcelona head coach Tata Martino is the man in the hotseat tasked with getting a talented young group of players to deliver on their preseason promise. Three south American Designated Players have been signed – all under the age of 23, with each expected to get fans off their seats from the first whistle.

They’ll be plenty of fans in those seats too, given the fact Atlanta have already sold a staggering 30,000 season tickets before a ball has been kicked. Expansion sides tend to flatter to deceive in their first campaigns, but Atlanta looks like the sort of team ready to make a real splash.

By stark contrast, Minnesota United have been much more careful in terms of spending. They have not signed a single DP ahead of the opening weekend, with any big spending likely to take place in the summer once the squad has found its feet. Instead, Targeted Allocation Money has been spent to build the squad, along with some clever trading to bring in the likes of Johan Venegas and Kevin Molino. Molino in particular is expected to shine under former Lions boss Adrian Heath, who has his second chance to get an expansion side into the playoffs at the first attempt this season.

Embed from Getty Images

The Loons have also kept a host of names from their NASL days, and they now have to hope that their trust in those players pays off in what is sure to be a fiercely competitive Western Conference. There have been some suggestions that this Minnesota side will be one of the worst in MLS history, but they look to have enough about them to prove those critics wrong.

Standout Signings

As always, there have been a host of changes to squads over the course of preseason. But unlike any other year, MLS clubs have started to look for younger talent as it has become clear all 22 sides are starting to prioritise longer-term goals. Atlanta’s trio of young DPs have already been mentioned, but they weren’t the only side to splash the cash on younger Designated Players this winter. FC Dallas have added striker Cristian Colman, Real Salt Lake have landed Albert Rusnak, Vancouver have brought in Yordy Reyna and Sporting Kansas City have moved to sign Gerso Fernandes. All of those names are sure to make an impression in 2017, along with a host of more ‘traditional’ DPs that have joined the league, although the following five are all still under the age of 30.

Embed from Getty Images

LA Galaxy have added some raw pace by bringing in Roman Alessandrini from Marseille, NYCFC have added creativity by signing Maxi Moralez to replace Frank Lampard and Chicago have added firepower by bringing in Nemanja Nikolic. On top of that Portland have signed Sebastian Blanco, while Fredy Montero is back in MLS after four seasons abroad. He has joined the Vancouver Whitecaps and will be hoping to pick up where he left off with Seattle, where he scored 47 goals in 119 regular season games.

What’s for certain is that the new DP signings will give MLS a fresh feel in 2017. More quality should mean more entertainment and more goals. Oh, and more selection dilemmas for MLS Fantasy managers…

Emerging Stars

With MLS getting younger this year, there will be plenty of focus on some of the league’s emerging talents. Some were here last season and left an impression, while others are looking to prove their worth as early as possible. The average age of squads in MLS this season is now 26.3, with FC Dallas boasting the youngest squad with an average age of 24.31. Walker Zimmerman will look to continue his improvement as an MLS defender, but will also be hoping to make an impression on the international stage if he can keep getting better. Elsewhere, the likes of LA Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget and NYCFC’s Jack Harrison will be looking to have breakout seasons so long as they can nail down regular starting roles.

Jack Harrison, MLS: NYCFC vs. LA Galaxy

Cody Cropper will be hoping this is the year he can become a standout goalkeeper. He had struggled for game time in England in the past but is now in New England, where he’ll expect to impress. While in New York, Sean Davis has the seemingly impossible task of trying to fill the void left by Dax McCarty’s departure to Chicago. But he should be giving the time on the field to prove his worth and will be looking to help lead the Red Bulls to the top of the East once more.

Who Will Be MVP?

As with any season, making a prediction like this before the first ball has even been kicked is brave stupid, but why not do it again? There are a host of new unpredictabilities all over the league this year but the same star names will expect to be challenging at the top end of the scoring charts, and for the MVP award too as a result. Sebastian Giovinco was probably shocked not to pick up the 2016 MLS MVP award, with David Villa instead scooping that award, and both attackers will once again be tipped to dominate defences from day one.

Embed from Getty Images

Strikers have dominated the MVP award over the past five seasons, but playmakers such as Diego Valeri, Ignacio Piatti and Sacha Kljestan will fancy their chances of making a case for the honour if they can have standout campaigns.

But it’s impossible to overlook Giovinco. The Atomic Ant has scored 39 goals and picked up 31 assists in 61 regular season games and is arguably the greatest player to ever play in Major League Soccer. If he stays healthy, he’s surely going to be MVP.

Embed from Getty Images

Who Will Win MLS Cup?

The only thing that’s even more brave stupid to predict than the MVP is picking the team that will lift MLS Cup nine months on from now. But hey, why not give that a go too? The way the Sounders marched to MLS Cup glory last season from a seemingly lost position in the summer was incredible, but is unlikely to be repeated this term given the increased competition and quality in the league. No side has retained the trophy for four seasons but the Sounders still have the tools at their disposal to put up a strong defence. LA Galaxy are usually in the mix but they are set for a transitional year and don’t look to be in a position to go and get their hands on a sixth title this year.

MLS Cup Final 2016 - Toronto vs Seattle Sounders

What does look likely is that the winner will come from the Western Conference for the eighth time in nine seasons. FC Dallas have still never lifted MLS Cup, which seems insane considering they’ve finished top of the West for two-straight seasons. They have all the tools to go all the way this year. Mauro Diaz is out for the first four months of the new season, which is a huge blow, but he’ll be back at a key time of the season and will be able to help Oscar Pareja’s men go all the way in 2017.

Embed from Getty Images

Vancouver Whitecaps also look like contenders this year, as the addition of Montero should make them much more of a force this term. Toronto FC were one shootout away from winning the title last term, and if Giovinco and Jozy Altidore can remain healthy for the majority of the campaign, they will likely be there or thereabouts again.

2016 MLS Cup Final: Exclusive photos from the Sounders’ penalty win over Toronto

The 2016 MLS season is now officially over. Saturday’s MLS Cup Final was far from the game many had hoped for, with Seattle Sounders and Toronto playing out a disappointing 0-0 after 120 minutes of action, but history was made at the end at BMO Field.

Seattle lifted a first ever MLS Cup title after edging past Toronto in a tense penalty shootout, with centre-back Roman Torres slotting in the winning penalty to send the travelling Sounders fans into raptures.

Toronto captain Michael Bradley missed in the shootout, but it was Justin Morrow’s shot that cannoned off the crossbar which allowed Torres to seal the victory.

Check out exclusive photos from Saturday’s final below, taken by our MLS Photographer Denise McCooey.

MLS Cup Final 2016 - Toronto vs Seattle Sounders MLS Cup Final 2016 - Toronto vs Seattle Sounders MLS Cup Final 2016 - Toronto vs Seattle Sounders MLS Cup Final 2016 - Toronto vs Seattle Sounders MLS Cup Final 2016 - Toronto vs Seattle Sounders MLS Cup Final 2016 - Toronto vs Seattle Sounders MLS Cup Final 2016 - Toronto vs Seattle Sounders MLS Cup Final 2016 - Toronto vs Seattle Sounders MLS Cup Final 2016 - Toronto vs Seattle Sounders MLS Cup Final 2016 - Toronto vs Seattle Sounders

MLS Cup Final Preview and Prediction: Toronto FC vs Seattle Sounders

Competition: 2016 MLS Cup Final – Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders 

Venue: BMO Field – Saturday, December 10 – 20:00 ET (01:00 GMT) 

Match Odds: Toronto 10/11 – Draw 12/5 – Seattle 14/5

Match Preview

Toronto face Seattle Sounders in the 2016 MLS Cup Final on Saturday night in what is set to be a historic night for one of these two sides, with both making the final for the first time.

Both teams deserve to be here after strong runs and both have plenty of goals in them, so we’re in for a real treat in this year’s showpiece game.

Toronto head coach Greg Vanney believes this will be the “biggest MLS Cup to date”, given the fact that two of the league’s major-market franchises are going head-to-head, and he’s probably not wrong.

Embed from Getty Images

Toronto have set a record during their run to the final. The Reds scored 17 goals during the playoffs, more than any other side has managed in history, so they’ll be confident of adding to that tally in Saturday’s final.

This is the first time a Canadian team has ever made the final and the Reds will now be aiming to lift the trophy on home soil in what will be a special night.

Seattle are a really dangerous opponent though and travel to Toronto off the back of one of the most incredible turnarounds this season.

Embed from Getty Images

Sounders fans won’t want to recall their horrendous start to the season. They sat ninth in the West at the halfway point but have managed to completely transform their fortunes and have gone on to prove themselves as one of the league’s most dangerous sides.

A 3-1 aggregate win over Colorado got the Sounders here, and they will be expecting to cause Toronto troubles given the creativity of Nicolas Lodeiro and pace of Jordan Morris in attack.

The only meeting between these sides during the regular season ended 1-1 at BMO Field but Seattle had won two in a row at BMO before that draw in July.

Embed from Getty Images

Team News

Toronto have no injuries or suspensions to worry about ahead of the final and so Greg Vanney can put out his strongest possible team for this crunch tie.

Seattle remain without Clint Dempsey, who has been out for a long time with an irregular heartbeat, while Oalex Anderson is listed as ‘questionable’. Other than than, there are no concerns and so an unchanged lineup could be sent out at BMO Field on Saturday.

Key Points

Toronto’s last five: W/W/W/L/W

Seattle’s last five: W/W/L/W/W

Key Stat: Goal-fest – There have been 15 goals in the last five meetings between these teams, with both sides scoring in each of those five clashes.

Key Player: Jozy Altidore – A number of talented players will be on show during Saturday’s final, but Jozy Altidore is arguably the in-form player in MLS coming into this one. He has five goals in his last seven and has played a starring role in guiding Toronto to their first ever MLS Cup Final. Playing at BMO Field will play into his hands, so expect the powerful forward to shine here.

Embed from Getty Images

Score Prediction

Toronto 2-3 Seattle – Goals are expected in what will be a historic MLS Cup Final on Saturday night. Both sides have reason to be optimistic but Seattle have worked wonders to get this far and will be intent on making sure they finish the job after an incredible run to the final. Home advantage is in Toronto’s favour, but as we saw last season in Columbus, home form doesn’t always mean that much in a game of this magnitude. It could honestly go either way, but we expect to see Seattle lifting the trophy come the end of the night.

Getting Stuck In: Parity never felt so good

A rain delay. No umbrella. A soggy bottom. All saturated highlights of my latest waterlogged visit to Mapfre Stadium, where leaky defending has become the norm for Crew SC.

As I sat watching NYCFC stars Villa, Lampard and Pirlo play against Crew SC, I thought to myself: “How the hell did the Crew go from MLS Cup runner-ups, to second from bottom in the East with basically the same team?” Then I followed it up with: “How did NYCFC go from missing the playoffs by 12 points and being tied for the most goals allowed in the league, to top of the East this year with basically the same team?”

On the surface you could say the Crew losing Kei Kamara in May was a huge blow, but they stunk before he left so that can’t be an excuse for the fact they have only won two league game since May. And what about Portland? They win the Cup last year and with the same team are barely holding onto their playoff hopes in the West.

Embed from Getty Images

I posed the why-do-the-Crew-stink question to my 12-old son Ezra as we sat on the cold, wet benches of Mapfre during the NYCFC match. He looked up from his iPhone after finding a Pokestop and said: “Maybe it’s our new uniforms… last year’s were better.” Not very scientific, but he was onto something. One little change can make all the difference in MLS.

There is a randomness to Major League Soccer: One year a team is good and the next they suck unless you are the LA Galaxy. In 2008, the Red Bulls lost MLS Cup to the Crew (who missed the playoffs the previous season) and the following season plummeted to last place, registering a franchise-worst five wins. It would be like Chelsea getting into the top four one year and then getting relegated the next. It’s never going to happen. And how do you explain the 1998 season? Yes, MLS was in its infancy and still had whacky rules like getting a point for a shootout loss, but a first year expansion team winning MLS Cup (Chicago Fire)? Crazy town!

MLS is a unique league and willing to experiment – thank God they got rid of the shootout. But what makes it a soccer league with no rival is team parity. This means pretty much every team in the league can go from bottom dwellers to penthouse champagne sippers in one season.

In other countries it’s a foregone conclusion who wins the league. Supporters of small market teams like Real Salt Lake, Columbus Crew SC and Sporting Kansas City – all MLS Cup winners – feel like they have a chance to win the Cup every year. In MLS’ first 20 seasons, ten different teams have won MLS Cup.

Embed from Getty Images

That’s variety and a huge percentage when compared to the Premier League over the same period: Five different winners with Manchester United’s 10 titles leading the way. In La Liga, only four teams have won the title with Barcelona snatching 10 over the last 20 years. Forget about the Bundesliga – Bayern Munich has won 13 titles in the last 20 season, which is pretty boring for the other sides.

The NFL, one of the most popular leagues in the world thrives on parity. Over the past 20 season, ten different teams have won the Super Bowl. Like MLS, the NFL is hugely successful because every market has a chance. Last year the Jacksonville Jaguars won five of their 16 games and are now tipped to make the playoffs this year.

It will take a long time for MLS to reach the heights of the NFL. Single entity, salary cap, the college draft, Designated Players and rapid expansion have all contributed to competitive balance in MLS. Detractors say rapid expansion is diluting the talent pool – the level of defenders is shockingly poor in some teams – and it’s starting to feel like the rich are getting richer (see NYCFC and LA Galaxy). But when a second-to-last place team like Seattle can sign a player like Nicolas Lodeiro midseason, win three and draw two with him in the lineup to catapult themselves into playoff contention, MLS is doing something right. No other league in the world can make a change midseason that changes the fortunes of a team that quickly.

Seattle Sounders vs Real Salt Lake - Nicolas Lodeiro Celebrates

Fragile? Yes, maybe the rosters are thin and maybe it’s a little embarrassing that one major move can impact a team, but who cares. I bet the caffeinated crazies up in Seattle are happy that MLS is so topsy-turvy.

So as the Crew-NYCFC game winds down, with Columbus down 3-2 in the 95th minute, I nudge my son and point to the 2008 MLS Cup banner and say, “Do you think we’ll ever win another one?” As my son opens his mouth to bestow some wisdom, Ethan Finlay slams home the equalizer at the end of stoppage time to send our soggy bottoms bolting from our seats. I hug my son like a squishy sponge and yell, “we’re back!”

Suddenly a team with only three wins all season has life and the playoff hopes are still alive. It’s so MLS.

STATS: Comparing the 2014 LA Galaxy MLS Cup winners to the 2015 Portland Timbers

Portland Timbers became just the second side not named LA Galaxy in the past five years to win MLS Cup last Sunday night. Here, Jamie Dawe looks at how Portland’s championship winning team compares to that of the Galaxy’s from the 2014 season and weighs up how a battle between the last two championship sides could play out… 

If the three league matches in the 2015 regular season between Portland Timbers and the LA Galaxy tell us anything (5-0 Galaxy win, 5-2 Portland win and a 2-2 tie) – it would be that this matchup is extremely unpredictable!

However, these two sides have come out with the Major League Soccer’s biggest prize over the past two seasons and I’m sure if this ‘dream’ game were to come about, there would be some incredible battles on the pitch. So, here are four of the biggest head-to-head matchups that would occur if the past two championship-winning sides were to play up, along with a dream LA/Portland lineup.

1. Gyasi Zardes & Robbie Keane vs. Nat Borchers & Liam Ridgewell

Embed from Getty Images

Firstly, it would be interesting to see how Borchers and Ridgewell would cope with Zardes’ constant movement and blistering speed, as well as whether Keane could capitalise on any space created by Zardes dragging the two centre-backs out of position. Robbie Keane had an unstoppable 2014 season, scoring 20 goals and grabbing 12 assists across the regular season and playoffs – with these performances earning him the 2014 MLS MVP award. I could see Keane and Zardes causing confusion within the Portland defence with some speedy link up play – but whether it would be enough to unlock a defensive duo with 13 clean sheets in the 2015 season alone – we may never know….

2. Landon Donovan vs. Alvas Powell

Embed from Getty Images

Donovan is one of the most experienced MLS players to have played the game and a battle against a 21-year-old Jamaican right-back with only two years of MLS experience but an ever-growing reputation would provide great viewing. Even though you would expect Donovan to be able to hound Powell with pressure throughout the match, I have a sneaking suspicion that the youngster would use his attacking instincts to press down the right channel and pin Donovan in a more defensive role than he would otherwise be used to. Donovan’s 13 goals and 15 assists in his final season as a professional may have propelled the Galaxy towards MLS Cup, but you can’t dispute Powell’s ability to shackle any left midfielder in MLS. This battle would likely turn out to be the most surprising in the match – but then again, Donovan’s class knows no bounds and all he needs is one sniff of a chance to leave Powell as lost as a penguin in the desert.

3. Omar Gonzalez vs. Fanendo Adi

Embed from Getty Images

Adi is a 6ft 4in monster of a striker, but at 6ft 5in, Omar Gonzalez isn’t a man to be messed with either. This would be a battle of brute force and would be particularly interesting at corners, where Adi has the ability to release a majestic salmon-like leap to win headers that really shouldn’t be his. Gonzalez however, won 69% of aerial duels he competed for across the 2014 season, which sets him up as a formidable opponent in the air.

Adi’s technical ability in the box is hard to contain as well – who can forget this assist for Will Johnson against the Vancouver Whitecaps in the 2014 regular season. A terrific tally of 18 goals and 3 assists in his 39 games across the 2015 regular and post-season show his incredible attacking quality. Neither of these players are slow either, so I’d expect a lot of body checking and other examples of football’s dark arts to nullify each other’s pace and power.

4. Marcelo Sarvas & Juninho vs. Diego Valeri, Darlington Nagbe & Diego Chara

Embed from Getty Images

This would be an intense battle for control of the centre of the park. Whoever comes out on top in this head-to-head would control the possession and the tempo of this game. Obviously the formation that the Timbers play leaves them with three players to Galaxy’s two in this duel.  However, you should never underestimate the tactical knowledge of the two Brazilians in the middle of the park for the Galaxy. Marcelo Sarvas racked up a formidable five goals, eight assists and an 86% pass accuracy rate from the heart of midfield in the 2014 season – with Juninho scoring one and creating five, along with an 89% pass accuracy – which is the same as Barcelona great Andres Iniesta over that period of time. However, Nagbe’s ever-growing ability (89% pass accuracy in 2015 season) along with the force of having three players in the middle would almost certainly win Portland control of the centre.

Predicted final score: 2-2

The attacking tendencies and qualities of these teams outweigh the abilities of their respective defences – but I couldn’t pick a winner between two strong forces in MLS history. Keane and Donovan would be favourites to score the goals for the Galaxy, with a header from Borchers and an Adi strike making this ‘fantasy’ matchup 2-2! 

Portland Timbers/LA Galaxy Dream XI from MLS Cup winning sides:

LA Galaxy & Portland Timbers Dream Team

GK: Jaime Penedo (2014): 34 apps – 93 saves & 31 clearances

RB: A.J. DeLaGarza (2014): 33 apps – 4 assists, 73% tackles won & 103 clearances

CB: Nat Borchers (2015): 37 apps – 4 goals, 188 clearances & 39 shots blocked
  or  Liam Ridgewell (2015): 37 apps – 236 clearances & 81% tackles won

CB: Omar Gonzalez (2014): 27 apps – 75% tackles won, 203 clearances & 12 shots blocked

LB: Jorge Villafaña (2015): 39 apps – 33 crosses blocked & 79 interceptions

CDM: Darlington Nagbe (2015): 5 goals, 4 assists, 89% pass accuracy & 82% tackles won

CM: Diego Valeri (2015): 27 apps – 83 key passes & 9 assists

CM: Juninho (2014): 39 apps – 89% pass accuracy, 30 key passes & 5 assists

CAM: Landon Donovan (2014): 36 apps – 13 goals, 127 key passes & 15 assists

ST: Robbie Keane (2014): 34 apps – 20 goals, 13 assists & 2014 MLS MVP

ST: Fanendo Adi (2015): 39 apps – 18 goals, 95 shots & 76 aerial duels won

(all statistics include playoffs unless mentioned)

Which championship team was better? The 2014 LA Galaxy side of the 2015 Portland Timbers?