Toronto FC looks to upend history in finals rematch with Seattle Sounders
Toronto FC's battle against history is a multiple-front affair.
Front No. 1: The club's own history, one that, until very recently, was littered with abject failure. Although Toronto has only existed as a Major League Soccer operation since 2007, the Reds managed to squeeze record levels of incompetence into their first nine seasons. Six head coaches, three general managers, and more than few scrapped club philosophies marked an era that saw the team finish no higher than 11th in the league's combined standings.
Front No. 2: The traditional failure of the Supporters' Shield winner to also claim the MLS Cup. Only six teams have accomplished the double in the league's history, and only two clubs have done it since the advent of the designated player era. The characteristics needed to win a points title don't always match up with those needed to win a playoff tournament. The postseason is often as much about luck as it is ability. It should be mentioned that TFC is actually going for a trio of trophies with the Shield and Canadian Championship already won, something that an MLS team has never accomplished.
Front No. 3: A finals rematch in consecutive years has happened twice before; in both cases, the team that won the first game also won the second and repeated as champions.
That such a thing is even happening for a third time in a competition that leans so heavily on parity is remarkable. The league structure and rules are meant to ensure that clubs can't easily dominate and that teams with poor seasons can turn things around in quick fashion. The randomness of the playoffs further makes it hard for even the best teams to match an MLS Cup run the following season. Every champion plays their next campaign not only dealing with a shorter offseason, but with the proverbial target on their backs. Everyone wants to beat the champs, whether in an early season low-stakes clash or in a late-season six-pointer with playoff and seeding implications.
This year's rematch between Seattle and Toronto FC is a credit to the effectiveness of the two organizations. Both clubs are spending more than most (in the case of Toronto, more than anyone), but that doesn't guarantee success. Navigating the long season, then meeting expectations in the playoffs is never easy. We don't need to look any further than MLS Cup matchups of the past for evidence.
The first consecutive MLS Cup rematch happened in 2007 when the New England Revolution and the Houston Dynamo met after the Dynamo's victory the year before. The 2006 final was an epic affair that involved matching extra-time goals a minute apart before the Dynamo prevailed 4-3 on penalties. In 2007, the Dynamo won 2-1 on goals by Joseph Ngwenya and Dwayne De Rosario. A second championship under coach Dominic Kinnear established Houston as a leading club and Kinnear as an elite head coach.
The Dynamo were on the other end of things in the second of the league's repeat MLS Cup finals. In 2011, Houston represented the Eastern Conference in a showdown with the Supporters' Shield-winning LA Galaxy, the last MLS Cup to be played at a pre-selected venue. Landon Donovan's 62nd minute goal was the only score of the game and delivered the Galaxy their third MLS Cup. In 2012, LA hosted Houston again, this time because of their higher point total in the regular season as the league shifted to home-field finals. Houston scored first, but Omar Gonzalez equalized and Donovan and Robbie Keane converted penalties on the way to a 3-1 win.
Does any of that history have anything to do with Toronto FC and their quest to lift the MLS Cup trophy on Saturday? Probably not. While neither of the previous two examples prevailed in their rematch, the circumstances were markedly different. TFC's status as the Supporters' Shield winner and best team in the league mean they'll be hosting the game. That's an advantage neither the Revolution nor the Dynamo had in 2007 or 2012. It doesn't bode well that the Reds lost the first final against Seattle in the same building last season, but the Sounders' triumph wasn't because they were the better team over the course of 120 minutes.
The weight of history on Toronto FC as they prepare for a second run at the MLS Cup comes from the club's own inept first decade and the difficulty of winning both the regular season points title and the playoff tournament. Everything else is just noise or happenstance, including their opponent. What happened to the Revolution in 2006 and 2007 and the Dynamo in 2011 and 2012 doesn't have much to do with whether TFC will become champions on Saturday.
But if they do win, if they knock off the perpetrators of their defeat in 2016, they can win on a historical front where two other MLS clubs could not. Three fronts, one championship, and a place in the record books.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.