Just over a week after the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC went on the road and upset the favorites, MLS Cup 2019 is on the horizon as the 24th season in league history comes to a close. CenturyLink Field in Seattle will be the epicenter on Sunday at 3 PM when the two sides face off in the MLS Cup final for the third time in the past four years.
It might not have been the matchup that everyone was expecting going into the playoffs, but these two veteran teams have once again proved their ability to navigate the playoffs, despite the change in format this year. And for the Sounders, their reward is a chance to host the final, the first time playing for an MLS Cup at home after playing their first two in Toronto.
Toronto got to this point by winning two games on the road, though, upsetting New York City FC and then Atlanta United to knock off the top two teams in the Eastern Conference. They will likely be without the services of Jozy Altidore, but head coach Greg Vanney has managed just fine this postseason without his striker, using Alejandro Pozuelo as a false nine throughout the playoffs.
Before Sunday's kickoff, here are a couple of talking points to help understand what might go down through 90 (or 120) minutes.
How will the teams line up?
There isn't much mystery for these two teams. For the most part, both teams will look just about the same as they did last week when they each went on the road for the conference finals and won. Seattle aren't really dealing with any injuries, at least ones that have cropped up recently. Will Bruin is out, but the striker has been unavailable since June after tearing his ACL.
The only real question for Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer is who will play at center back. Kim Kee-hee seems certain to play; the question is down to who his partner will be. Xavier Arreaga got the nod over Román Torres against LAFC. It makes sense that Arreaga would start again, given that the hulking Altidore likely won't play, and Arreaga has a bit more mobility than the aging Torres. But Torres does have plenty of experience, which could help him navigate the stage on Sunday afternoon.
TFC's Vanney has a couple of more question marks. One is the health of Altidore, who has not appeared in any of the three playoff games for the Reds. It has now been over a month since Altidore played in the season finale, and it seems like, even though he made the trip to Seattle, that he'll be unable to put in the type of minutes that would merit his inclusion in the matchday squad.
Vanney's other decision comes at center back, where Omar Gonzalez stepped in during the middle of the season and helped shore up the backline. However, Gonzalez hasn't played in the playoffs either, but has been on the bench for the past two games. Vanney will have to decide whether the final is the right time to reintroduce Gonzalez, or continue to roll with Laurent Ciman and Chris Mavinga.
Managing emotions for the Sounders
CenturyLink Field has hosted one MLS Cup final before, back when the final was held at a pre-determined site. In 2009, Real Salt Lake beat the LA Galaxy on penalties to claim their first-ever Philip F. Anschutz Trophy. When the Sounders made the final in 2016 and 2017, they were the lower seed both times, which meant they played both games in Toronto.
So Sunday will be quite the scene. There will be close to 70,000 people at the stadium, mostly clad in Sound blue and rave green, cheering on the Sounders, in hopes of grabbing their second-ever MLS Cup. The crowd will definitely play their part, but the 11 men on the field have to ensure that they don't get over-hyped up. TFC have gone on the road and beaten two really good teams in these playoffs and would love to pounce on an early mistake from an overly excited Sounders side.
That said, Seattle fans have always brought their A-game for big matches at CenturyLink Field. Here's to looking forward to what they show up with for tifo on Sunday.
Nick DeLeon off the bench?
Seems crazy, for sure. DeLeon, in his first season with the Reds, netted six league goals, tying his personal best from his rookie campaign back in 2012. DeLeon, who returned to a more attacking role this year after playing just about everywhere for D.C. United in recent years, started 23 of the 32 games he appeared in during the MLS regular season.
But in the playoffs, DeLeon has been coming off the bench, with Tsubasa Endoh commanding a starting role for Vanney. On the surface, that's a big surprise given Endoh's career trajectory. And his lack of numbers in front of goal. However, DeLeon has come off the bench and scored two goals during these playoffs, including the game-winner against Atlanta United to secure TFC's spot in the final.
It would seem to make more sense for DeLeon to start, but why would Vanney mess with what has worked thus far? And if DeLeon can make that kind of impact off the bench, why not keep him as the late game X-factor, capable of changing the course of the game in a reserve role.
Seattle's three attackers, though...
There are some great attacking partnerships — whether duos or triumvirates — in this league right now. Seattle's might go under the radar a bit, but their three main attacking options are clicking in all the right ways during these playoffs. First Jordan Morris scored a hat trick to beat FC Dallas in extra time in the first round of the playoffs. Then it was Nicolás Lodeiro assisting on the game-winner and adding the insurance goal in the 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake. And finally in the win over LAFC, it was striker Raúl Ruidíaz who scored twice, ensuring Seattle's win in the 64th minute, putting the visitors up 3-1.
All three are peaking at the right time for Seattle. TFC has to find a way to shut down Lodeiro, to prevent him from picking out his teammates. But, as others have found, that is much easier said than done. And even if Morris or Ruidíaz has an off game, the other one can still be there to pick up the slack. Good luck finding a way to keep all three off of the scoresheet over the course of the entire game on Sunday.
This game should be fun. The first meeting in 2016 between these two produced a scoreless game, though Stefan Frei's incredible save on Altidore in extra-time prevented TFC from hoisting the trophy. In 2017, the Reds got their revenge with a 2-0 victory, a well-deserved result. At a minimum, expect Seattle to finally score their first-ever goal in an MLS Cup final game!
But this is a game that screams goals. Both teams have questions in defense and boast players on the attacking end who can score goals on a whim. This should be a close game, but the home-field advantage will be the edge for the Sounders, as they win their second MLS Cup with a 3-2 win over Toronto.