Toronto FC need Jozy Altidore and a return of scoring form to beat Seattle
Over the course of a 34-game schedule in 2017, Toronto FC earned 69 points and set a benchmark for regular-season Major League Soccer success. Those 69 points are a record that speaks to the dominant nature of head coach Greg Vanney's team through it march to the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
But those points mean much less if the postseason tournament doesn't end with the club lifting the MLS Cup on the Reds' home field. Last year's loss to Seattle still stings, though that pain clearly served as motivation for Toronto to get back to the title game. Expectations are high in Canada's biggest city, so while making it back to the final is worthy of celebration in its own right, only the club's first championship will meet it.
Like last year, Toronto FC will be the favorites when the Reds face the Seattle Sounders at BMO Field. There's plenty of reason for that, not the least of which is the team's league-high 74 goals scored in the regular season. Toronto's attack runs through its two strikers: Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. Giovinco dropped jaws across the league with his stunning free kicks in 2017, and is always a threat to put the ball in the net from dead-ball situations in sight of goal. He also earned an MLS Best XI nod this season, though it's worth noting he hasn't scored from the run of play since August.
Altidore's heroic goal-scoring turn after going down with an ankle injury early in the second half of TFC's victory over Crew SC on Wednesday will cement his place in Toronto's playoff lore. It might also prevent him from playing in the final. Altidore defiantly declared himself available for the game in the aftermath of the Reds' victory over Columbus, but ankle injuries are notoriously difficult, and even nine days between matches might not be enough. Altidore leaving the match just minutes after scoring indicates head coach Greg Vanney wanted to be careful with his forward, setting the stage for a tense week in Toronto.
Despite its reputation for scoring goals, Toronto worked its way to the final in large part because of its defending. Vanney's preferred 3-5-2 gave up the second fewest goals in the league in 2017, a paltry 37 in those 34 matches, and will be called on often if the Sounders' recent form is any indication. Toronto's attack went distressingly quiet over the past three playoff games with just a single goal, requiring Alex Bono, the three center-backs and captain Michael Bradley to do much of the heavy lifting.
Bradley is the most important player on the field for Toronto. Shielding the back line, directing traffic and providing leadership are just a few of his responsibilities. He'll be at the center of everything in the final, and if he can maintain his composure and keep the ball moving, the TFC will feel good about its chances to win.
The Sounders dropped five goals on the Dynamo over two legs in the Western Conference final and will be brimming with confidence for the Dec. 9 final (4 p.m. ET on ESPN). This is a very different team than Toronto faced last year. Not only is Clint Dempsey back in the team after missing the run in 2016, the Sounders added a slew of key contributors to an already excellent roster. There is much danger in what Brian Schmetzer can do, and Vanney has difficult choices to make in regards to the approach of his team.
TFC is capable of slowing Seattle down, but it may require some sacrifice on the attacking end of the field. As the Crew proved at BMO Field on Wednesday night, it's possible to clog the midfield and starve Toronto's forwards of service. The Reds found a moment of magic in the interplay between Giovinco, Victor Vazquez and Altidore that was enough to earn them the aggregate win, but to count on or expect a similar bit of lightning to strike against the Sounders is begging for trouble.
With all of the factors in play, this is a difficult final to handicap. Toronto earned home field and the favorite tag with a spectacular regular season. The Reds also faced a tougher road to the final than Seattle with wins over the Red Bulls and Crew compared to the Sounders' victories over Vancouver and Houston. Vanney's defense is stout, and every criticism of their play in the postseason comes with the caveat that playoff soccer often strips the beauty out of the game.
The Sounders are rolling into Toronto on the back of a dominant performance, however, and already know they can win the big game there. Altidore's status looms large, and if the striker isn't able to go, it changes the calculus dramatically for Vanney.
Toronto can, and perhaps should, win the MLS Cup in its own building with the backing of a boisterous crowd, but it'll need Altidore -- and more goals than one to do it.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.