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While the first two rounds of the MLS Playoffs went mostly to script, the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC sprung upsets this week, setting up a third meeting between the two clubs in the MLS Cup final. Seattle beat Cup favorites LAFC 3-1 on Tuesday night, before TFC went to Atlanta and walked away 2-1 winners thanks to Nick DeLeon's stunning goal. The result is a November 10 date at CenturyLink Field, the second time the stadium has hosted MLS Cup.
After visiting teams won just two of the first 10 games in these playoffs, Seattle and TFC turned the script upside down this week, overturning early deficits to get back to MLS Cup. That means that after meeting in MLS Cup in 2016 and 2017, the teams will play a rubber match, after each won one of the previous meetings, both of which were at BMO Field in Toronto.
In 2016, Stefan Frei's dramatic save in extra-time ensured a 0-0 draw, which led to a Seattle triumph in penalties. TFC wouldn't be denied in 2017, though, winning their first-ever MLS Cup thanks to a 2-0 score in front of their home crowd.
LAFC 1 - 3 Seattle Sounders
When Eduard Atuesta perfectly deposited a free kick past Stefan Frei in the 17th minute on Tuesday night, everything seemed right on schedule for Bob Bradley's team. The most decorated regular-season team in league history seemed destined to make it to their first MLS Cup final in just their second year of existence, a coronation of everything they accomplished during the torrid run during the regular season.
Brian Schmetzer's side didn't play along with that script, though, and by the 26th minute the visitors had stormed ahead at Banc of California Stadium. First, it was Raul Ruidiaz with the equalizer in the 22nd minute, a thunderous strike just inside the box. Then, Nicolas Lodeiro put the Sounders ahead, a skipping bid that just snuck inside the post from outside the box.
That meant that LAFC were going to have 65 minutes to find an equalizer, something that didn't seem far-fetched for Carlos Vela and company. Except that the Sounders defense produced a stunning display, keeping LAFC to their lowest expected goals total for the entire season.
Ruidiaz would go on and add his second goal of the night, giving the visitors a two-goal cushion, in the 64th minute. That was all that the Sounders would require, to return to MLS Cup for the third time in the past four years.
Despite his success over the past couple of seasons, Schmetzer seems to be a bit under the radar within the league when talking about the best coaches. However, Schmetzer's sides always seem to find a way to get the job done, and the game plan on Tuesday was perfectly drawn up, and then executed, by the Sounders. The reward for winning this game on the road is being able to play the MLS Cup final at home for the first time after playing the first two in Toronto.
The Sounders have never missed the playoffs since they entered the league in 2009, and have spent much of their time setting standards for which other teams have aimed to match. Finally getting a chance to host the final with the Sounders participating is a just reward for a club that has done so many things right over the past decade, on and off the field.
Atlanta United 1 - 2 Toronto FC
Much like the Sounders the night before, TFC found themselves in an early hole on Wednesday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Ezequiel Barco's pass found Pity Martinez beyond the Reds' backline, setting up Julian Gressel for an easy tap-in in the fourth minute. Then Pity won a penalty kick, giving Josef Martinez, one of the most prolific goal-scorers in league history, a chance to double the lead in the 11th minute.
Goalkeeper Quentin Westberg had other ideas, though, denying Martinez from the spot — which meant that, three minutes later, Nicolas Benezet's curling effort that bounced around Brad Guzan was an equalizing goal, resetting the game to its original state after just 14 minutes of play. It was mostly a stalemate for the rest of the game, at least until Nick DeLeon entered the fray.
It didn't seem that there was much to aim at for DeLeon in the 78th minute, though Atlanta's defense also didn't bother to close him down with any urgency. That allowed DeLeon to lace home the winner, a stunning effort that only adds to the lore of DeLeon's playoff legacy.
Back in his rookie season of 2012, DeLeon scored a dramatic late winner for D.C. United against the New York Red Bulls in the conference semifinals. Last year, DeLeon's ridiculous volley in extra-time sent United's knockout round game against the Columbus Crew to penalties. And then earlier in these playoffs, DeLeon's sumptuous strike rounded out TFC's 5-1 extra-time win over his former club, his second goal against United this year.
This one was the biggest, though, as it means that TFC will play in their third-ever MLS Cup final. And it's a return to glory for Greg Vanney, who did so well to guide the Reds to the cusp of the Champions League title in 2018, only then to miss out on the MLS playoffs. But without the services of Jozy Altidore in their three playoff games, Vanney has found a way to get back to the final, having to beat the top two teams in the East on the road to earn a spot.
The third meeting in the final between these two teams should prove just as dramatic as the first two. That these teams made it back once again should be a testament to how well they have built their clubs in recent years. Yes, they invest a lot of money in their players, but they do so making plenty of decisions that turn out to be the right ones, which should set an example for plenty of other teams around the league.