On the eve of a third MLS Cup Final in three years, Toronto FC eagerly await another match against Seattle Sounders FC, part three of the trilogy, on Sunday at CenturyLink Field.
Where some may have, they never doubted.
“The MLS season is a long season,” reminded Ashtone Morgan. “There’s a big thing about momentum. Back stretch of the season we caught [ours] and look at us now. Everybody ruled us out, but we’re in the final. Looking ahead, not looking back, or to care what people have to say.”
Leave the labels to the talkers.
“The favourite-underdog is... that’s for the media. We don’t think of ourselves as [either],” dismissed Michael Bradley. “We think of ourselves as one of two teams in a final. If we step on the field, play in the right way, do all the things that make us us, all the things that have gotten us here, we have a big chance to win.”
That is the expectation, after all.
“That’s what true professionals and competitors do – you expect yourself to go out and win,” said Greg Vanney. “It’s everybody else who looks at them as underdogs, not this group. The group is very confident in themselves, confident in each other, in the preparation, and their ability.”
“The expectation for them is to win, but they don’t mind that everybody else talks about them in that way,” added Vanney. “It’s an opportunity to prove people wrong and that’s always a little bit motivating.”
TFC has been here before, even the new guys know what to expect amidst the circus that a cup final brings.
“We’ve got guys who have been there and done that,” said Patrick Mullins, readying for the second MLS Cup Final of his career – he was there in 2014, his rookie season, with the New England Revolution. “We know to make sure we’re getting our work done and also realize there is some outside planning that goes into the game – talk to the media.”
“And then: make sure we’re focused when it comes to the end of the week,” he continued. “The last two, three days there no other distractions besides getting ready for the match and what Seattle is going to bring to the table.”
Having joined the club mid-July from Columbus Crew SC, Mullins has witnessed the ascension through the back half of the season that has TFC at this stage once more.
“In between these four walls here, since the day I arrived, the mentality has been very strong,” he said. “That’s been a constant in this group. Every day it’s the same back to business, back to work, that type of consistency and intensity is something we’ve leaned into and it’s served us well.”
It’s the trademark: getting into the laboratory to cook up some good stuff.
“Just willingness to work,” stressed Jozy Altidore. “You heard a lot of outside noise from a lot of different people. The proof is in the pudding. All that stuff... we just focus on the work.”
The captain plays his role, but it is infectious.
“Look at a guy like Michael, he’s huge in that,” highlighted Altidore. “Every single day we challenge each other. Every single day looking to improve. When that spreads you have group of guys who come in every day looking to get better. That’s what we have. What’s been built over the years.”
“It’s no surprise to be in a game like this,” he added. “To people on the outside it may be, but to people who come in here every day, I don’t think it’s a surprise.”
There is a selflessness involved. Neither Vanney in line for his 100th win, nor Bradley entering his 200th appearance for the club, could care less about the individual glory associated with such figures.
“The championship is far more important than anything else,” dismissed Vanney. “Approach this game the same as every other – we have a game-plan, a strategy, we’ll go in with that and see where the game goes.”
“The game always tells us what the answers are and the solutions are,” he elaborated. “There is no way to script out a soccer game, you just have to read it, put out the right guys in the right places to try to be successful.”
It demands a tenacity and a fearlessness.
“When we went to Atlanta and it’s not going exactly how we would have expected or hoped, it’s not a bunch of deer in the headlights,” recalled Bradley. “There is a collective idea and mentality that says, ‘OK, we’ve been on the field on nights like this. Maybe, it’s not playing out exactly the way we had hoped, but we’re going to still find a way to win, find a way to pull together and make sure we walk off the field winners.’”
Seattle, having dispatched the Supporters’ Shield champions LAFC, have some of that as well.
“Two clubs that know how to get success on the field,” singled out Mullins. “Being an outsider, knowing what Toronto did being in two MLS Cups before this one, I always had a great deal of respect, but then to be in house, see how it goes down, to see the balance, the proper competitive tension that goes on to make sure that winning is a priority, but also winning in the right way, doing it with the right mentality. That’s been very evident to me why this club has been successful for the string of time it has been.”
It should be a fascinating final – best two out of three – it almost had to be so.
“Yes,” smiled Chris Mavinga at the thought of meeting Seattle once more. “We know it’s going to be not easy, but it’s a final. Any final it’s a 50-50 chance; we have to take it. The team, the club, believe it. Different [for] outside people. We have to put it on the line and make sure we win this game.”