TORONTO – So, they meet again.
Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders FC will meet in a third MLS Cup Final in four years on Sunday.
Having split the previous two meetings at BMO Field, with the Sounders lifting the trophy in 2016 and TFC exacting revenge in 2017, the scene shifts to CenturyLink Field in Seattle.
“It’s a very unique scenario because they’re like us – a lot of big games the past few years, a group that has been together most of the time,” said Jozy Altidore. “A tactical game for sure. Two teams that know each other well, have always found different ways to win.”
“It’s a game where both teams have to be sharp and, on the fly, be able to figure things out, like we did against Atlanta [United], like they did against LAFC,” forecast the striker. “It’s a challenging game. Two very good teams.”
A packed house of nearly 70 000 is expected, including more than a few fans clad in red.
“I’m a soccer fan also, so being able to be on the field in front of such an attendance is great,” anticipated Quentin Westberg with a smile. “It’s a game we need to win, but the better the atmosphere, the better the game. Excited; really looking forward to that game.”
MLS Cup Finals aside, Toronto have gone into a lot of hostile environments over the past few years. The Concacaf Champions League run at the start of 2018 in particular, where they navigated a daunting gauntlet of away trips to Tigres UANL’s bubbling El Volcan, Club America’s historic Azteca, and CD Guadalajara’s Estadio Akron, will be invaluable.
“That experience definitely helps a lot,” said Jonathan Osorio. “Going into these environments, like Atlanta and Seattle, it’s still difficult, but it’s nothing new to us. We’ve been to Mexico, three hostile environments, and picked up wins. That has helped us get to where we are now.”
The Eastern Conference Final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta and it’s 44 000 was no different.
For Greg Vanney, those experiences are “so important,” not just for the feel of the atmosphere, but for the lessons they impart.
“What you have to understand going into different places like that is that the game doesn’t look exactly like you want and you have to adapt, have to adjust,” explained the coach. “We all want to be a little bit ideological, have more possession, create more chances, and say we are better at this, and that, and the other, but at the end of the day, in knockout competition, sometimes you have to adapt in a game, be content not having the ball, be able to protect yourself, be effective in the transition or find your ways to win games – set-pieces, all kinds of different things.”
“All these experiences, with this group and the groups that we’ve had, lend different ways to go about getting results,” he added. “It’s going to be different again because every game is a little bit different. Our experiences have taught us that we can find different ways to win as we need to.”
“Sometimes they’ll look as we want them to and sometimes they won’t,” he reminded. “We’ve got to be OK with that and answer whatever is needed of us on the day.”
Reaching the MLS Cup Final is the peak of a crescendo that has been building over the past three-plus months.
Toronto ended the regular season unbeaten in ten MLS matches, dating back to the start of August. A 5-1 win over D.C. United in Round One, powered by a thunderous 13 minutes in the first half of extra time, saw TFC leap over one hurdle.
In the Eastern Conference semifinals at the tight confines of Citi Field, Toronto faced down NYCFC, the top seed in their bracket, and emerged with a 2-1 win. Alejandro Pozuelo’s ice-cold Panenka at the death proving the difference.
And come the Eastern Conference Final in Atlanta, it was sheer grit that won the day. Responding to a tough start and battling to the final whistle, with the aid of some lovely finishes from Nicolas Benezet and Nick DeLeon.
Toronto have been road warriors these past few weeks. They will be called upon to do so once more.
“When things work out in soccer, results follow,” said Westberg of the journey this group has been on. “When a team gets together and the chemistry better, when you go through difficult times and then start winning. The league here is in such a format that to win it you don’t need to be the most regular team, you need to be the team that shows up on big events and is consistent. These past few months have been great on that matter.”
Just don’t put a label on it.
“We’ve been the underdogs since the first game of these playoffs,” dismissed the goalkeeper. “Everyone has a different job. Some people talk about soccer, some love [the sport] come to stadium, we players are fortunate enough to make sure we can change fate, fight odds. We’ve been doing this pretty decently this year.”
A final is the culmination of a year’s worth of effort, sometimes many years worth.
“A lot of hard work has been done here over the last four or five years,” said Altidore. “It is frustrating [to have missed out so far], but at the same time we’re ready.”
“We’re ready for these type of moments. The guys the past three games have put in performances. That doesn’t look like a team that has any interest in talking about outside scenarios. It’s a group that is ready to take on the weight,” he added. “If you look at the games our team has played over the last three, four years – Champions League, Canadian Championship Finals, big games, these moments, there have been a bunch – the group is prepared.”