Seattle Sounders (14-14-6) vs. Toronto FC (14-9-11)
5 p.m. (PST) Saturday, BMO Field, Toronto
TV: Ch. 13. Radio: 97.3-FM, 1360-AM (Spanish).
THREE STORY LINES
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1. First-timers: Seattle Sounders FC and Toronto FC mark the 14th and 15th different franchises to earn an inaugural berth into the MLS championship game. In fact, the last time two first-timers met for the MLS Cup was 2008 — won by Columbus, 3-1, over the New York Red Bulls at the Home Depot Center in California. The Reds are the first Canadian club to play in the title match, while the Sounders are trying to become the second Northwest team to win the MLS Cup (Portland won it in 2015).
2. Replacement coaches: Seattle’s Brian Schmetzer and Toronto’s Greg Vanney have one thing in common — they were in-season coaching replacements. Vanney replaced Ryan Nelsen in August 2014, and has led the team to 31 wins in two-plus seasons. Schmetzer took over for the fired Sigi Schmid in July, and orchestrated the team’s turnaround. Both had other positions within their respective franchises — Vanney was a former assistant general manager and academy director while Schmetzer was a top assistant and had coached the USL-1 Sounders.
3. National star power: Between them, Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley (15 goals in 126 matches) and forward Jozy Altidore (37 goals in 99 matches) have 225 combined U.S. National Team appearances. Both played in the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups. And now they’ve seen glimpses of the future in Seattle’s Jordan Morris, who has been part of the national squad since 2014. When Morris debuted, he was the first college player on the USMNT since 1999. If Sounders striker Clint Dempsey (irregular heartbeat) was available, he, too, would have added to the mix.
July 2 at Toronto: Seattle 1, Toronto 1. In one of the Sounders’ better moments in former coach Sigi Schmid’s final weeks, the visitors salvaged a tie after Morris tallied the equalizer in the 61st minute — one minute after Toronto’s Jordan Hamilton scored the game’s first goal. Reigning MLS most valuable player Sebastian Giovinco set up the Reds’ score as his shot hit off the hands of Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, and came right to Hamilton, who cashed in. But on Seattle’s next possession, defender Joevin Jones delivered a long pass to Morris near the left side of Toronto’s penalty box. Morris pivoted inside and curled in a shot inside the right post for his sixth goal of the year. Veterans Dempsey and Brad Evans sat this one out, as did Altidore.
TORONTO SCOUTING REPORT
Since late July, these have been the two hottest clubs in the league. In the final 19 matches, Seattle is 12-3-4; Toronto is 11-3-5. And the Reds have scored more goals than anybody during that span, outscoring opponents, 43-22. Giovinco (17 goals, 15 assists) and Altidore (10 goals, five assists) form the most dangerous and versatile forward tandem in the league. The lightning-fast Giovinco is virtually impossible to defend one-on-one, especially in space, and Altidore is big and explosive enough to control the action even when the pace has slowed. Altidore leads all scorers with five goals (scored in all five matches) during the postseason; Giovinco is tied for second with four. After switching to a 3-5-2 formation, the Reds have tallied 17 goals in five playoff matches. Bradley is a team captain, and the big name has had nerves of steel in the biggest moments. He has also been the loudest voice behind the club’s transformation to championship contender. Although the Reds had shaky moments defensively in the Eastern Conference finals against Montreal, they did lead the East in fewest goals given up (39) — four fewer than Seattle. Clint Irwin was one of the league’s best goalkeepers before missing three months this summer with a quadriceps injury, and was an MLS All-Star last season.
SEATTLE SCOUTING REPORT
So what was the catalyst to the team’s turnaround — and biggest comeback in MLS history to nab a playoff spot? For starters, the players felt all along, even mired in a losing streak, they were not far away from playing and sustaining great soccer. The team just needed a different leading voice, and that has come from new coach Brian Schmetzer, who has given his players more ownership of what happens. And, of course, at about the same time the club fired Schmid, Uruguyan midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro (four goals, eight assists in regular season; four more goals in MLS playoffs) came on board from Boca Juniors. Lodeiro’s impact has been season-saving, tallying a goal or assist in 12 of 18 matches, including the playoffs. Much like Giovinco, Lodeiro’s quickness and creativity are unmatched in open space. Morris continues to show himself as the best young striker in MLS. He scored the decisive goal in Seattle’s 1-0 win at Colorado to send the Sounders on to the MLS Cup. Where Seattle should have a decisive edge is defensively, especially in the middle with versatile midfielders Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan, and defender Chad Marshall. Goalkeeper Stefan Frei has been terrific, surrendering multiple goals four times in his past 19 appearances. Frei had posted shutouts in three of the team’s five postseason matches.
REGULAR SEASON STATISTICAL LEADERS
Toronto: Goals — Sebastian Giovinco (17), Jozy Altidore (10), Tosaint Ricketts (5), Jordan Morrow (5). Assists — Giovinco (15), Altidore (5), Will Johnson (5). Goalkeeping — Clint Irwin (1.21 GAA, 50 saves).
Seattle: Goals — Jordan Morris (12), Clint Dempsey (8), Nicolas Lodeiro (4), Cristian Roldan (4), Chad Marshall (4). Assists — Andres Ivanschitz (7), Lodeiro (5). Goalkeeping — Stefan Frei (1.24 GAA, 91 saves).
Toronto: Sebastian Giovinco (leg) is probable.
Seattle: Osvaldo Alonso (knee), D Brad Evans (ankle) and MF Erik Friberg (calf) are probable.
QUOTE TO NOTE
“Every player will have butterflies when the referee is about to blow the whistle. If they don’t, then they are not human and can feel things. Once the game is on, it’s on.” — Sounders FC coach Brian Schmetzer
Todd Milles: email@example.com