By Chris Smith.
The term “it’s a funny old game” has never seemed more pertinent than when studying the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.
A new structure which did away with two-legged affairs has brought us some of the most memorable, entertaining and downright ridiculous games in league history and taken entertainment levels into a whole new stratosphere.
Yet despite all the expectation surrounding them, this week’s final will not be contested by LAFC or Atlanta United. Instead, it’ll be the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC going head-to-head at CenturyLink Field.
If anyone out there can honestly say they saw this coming, show yourselves now because you deserve a medal.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 31, 2019
LAFC came into these playoffs fresh off the back of the greatest regular season in league history. They broke their El Trafico duck to reach the Western Conference final and took an early lead against the Sounders. From there, it seemed only one thing could really happen.
As for Atlanta United, while they’ve had a much more inconsistent regular season compared to 2018, the Five Stripes went into the playoffs as Campeones Cup and US Open Cup champions, defending MLS Cup champions, and looking rock solid and reliable at home. They, too, took an early lead last Wednesday against Toronto.
But what both sides didn’t account for was the incredible street smarts of their criminally underrated opponents, or the incalculable nature of MLS thanks to its relative parity. As the saying goes — MLS gonna MLS.
Brian Schmetzer set his side up to be ruthless on the counter-attack at Banc of California Stadium last week and the likes of Raúl Ruidíaz, Nicolás Lodeiro, and Jordan Morris were absolutely punishing.
With those three players alone, we’ve just rattled off a trio of names well worthy of an MLS Cup title, yet if you were to buy into some of the hype, they were there purely to make up the numbers against Bob Bradley’s men. In the end, they were great value for their unlikely win in Los Angeles.
Midfielder Cristian Roldan said of Seattle’s Designated Players after the match:
“At the end, we could have scored another one, but that was because LAFC was pushing forward and opening up a lot of space.
“But our DPs get paid big bucks to score those goals. We capitalized on three shots and, really, when you’re up 3-1 you just want to defend for your life and make it as difficult as possible for LAFC to score another goal.”
Greg Vanney deserves just as much credit, setting his Toronto side up to be compact and disciplined not only at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium against Atlanta, but in the equally impressive 2-1 win away at Eastern Conference regular-season leaders New York City FC in the previous round.
They had just the right amount of magic in the big moments to get the job done and in all honesty, both New York and Atlanta should have taken their 5-1 extra-time demolition of DC United at the start of the playoffs as a huge warning of what the 2017 champions are capable of.
“They sat back and got guys behind the ball,” Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst said after the defeat to Toronto.
“Maybe we just didn’t move the ball quick enough and take advantage of that.”
Two hugely differing plans, both equally deserving of the plaudits.
Now, obviously taking away LAFC and Atlanta United fans, as well as non-neutrals such as LA Galaxy and Orlando City supporters, this is the final everybody wanted, right?
Sure, this is the third time in four years Seattle and Toronto have contested MLS Cup. Such a run from two teams is almost unheard of in MLS and if you were on the outside looking in, it would look a little bit like groundhog day.
However, all year we’ve heard how LAFC are the “greatest MLS team of all time”, how Atlanta are the ultimate winners. How the pair of them are redefining the league and setting the standard to which every other side must aspire to.
In fairness, both sides are deserving of their respective billings and have, in one sense or another, been the juggernauts of 2019 to this point, while their long-term structures and planning methods are far superior to most of the clubs around them.
✅ Single-season scoring record
✅ Supporters’ Shield
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 29, 2019
But just when everyone thought they could predict MLS, it goes and throws up two massive curveballs at once from two teams that have, quite obviously, been woefully overlooked, just as they would have wanted.
“I know the quality that we have on this squad,” said Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei after the win over LAFC.
“We haven’t been able to show it consistently [this year], but if you take a game against this team for granted, you’re in for a rough night.”
And ahead of Wednesday night’s win over Atlanta, Vanney said of his Toronto side:
“People have underestimated us all year, especially this tail end with Jozy [Altidore] and Omar [Gonzalez] out. We’re very confident in our group and our ability to go anywhere and get a result.”
Next week’s showdown will be a fascinating encounter. Can Schmetzer’s counter-attacking machine exploit an immobile Toronto defence? Or will Vanney’s superstars come up with more moments of inspiration in an away cauldron a la Nick DeLeon in Atlanta or Alejandro Pozuelo’s Panenka against NYCFC? And will we see a timely return to fitness for USA international Jozy Altidore?
Never has such a tired old match-up felt so refreshing.