Can history-making Toronto get MLS Cup revenge over red-hot Seattle?
It's deja vu all over again as Toronto FC hosts the Seattle Sounders in the 2017 MLS Cup final at BMO Field on Saturday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN).
Coach Greg Vanney has a variety of weapons at his disposal, but it all starts up front in attack with the forward pair of Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, who have combined for 33 goals in 2017. Even with a sore ankle, Altidore will be banging against Seattle's big center backs Roman Torres and Chad Marshall, and that could open things up for midfielder Victor Vazquez or left winger Justin Morrow to find Giovinco. The TFC defense is no slouch either. Michael Bradley is as good as a defensive midfielder as there is in MLS, while the three-man back line of Chris Mavinga, Drew Moor and Eriq Zavaleta allowed just 37 goals this season.
From back to front, Toronto is as well balanced and deep as anyone, but there is an Achilles' heel: If you can limit Bradley's touches, the TFC attack loses their edge. The New York Red Bulls did a masterful job of this in the second leg of their conference semifinal series. Bradley was harried and never allowed the time and space to play forward. There is also TFC's temperament. The Red Bulls' series showed that the dark arts can be used to effect against TFC. If things become chippy and TFC players start focusing more on the referee's calls than playing, it could be very costly.
Why Toronto will win
Giovinco has been very quiet in these playoffs, with just one goal scored and that was back in the first leg against the Red Bulls. There is a sense that Giovinco is due to break out. He'll be the best player on the field and will be inspired to make up for last year's disappointment when he was substituted off late in the eventual defeat to Seattle. The Italian also has the touch and skill, plus the support from midfield, to weave his way through the Sounders' sturdy defense. The man who has been the best player in the league the past three years is set to lead his team to the cup.
When it comes to the Sounders, much of the attention goes to the attack, but their winning ways are down to defense. They have now gone six games without conceding, and have seamlessly incorporated new parts like right back Kelvin Leerdam, left back Nouhou Tolo and defensive midfielder Gustav Svensson. In attack, it's all about the left flank, which makes Joevin Jones such a key figure. Jones ran rampant against the Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference final and combines well with either Nicolas Lodeiro or Clint Dempsey. The TFC defense will have their hands full.
While Svensson has been good filling in for Osvaldo Alonso, TFC's five-man midfield will present a much more difficult challenge than Vancouver and Houston. Vazquez has been exceptional this season with 16 assists, and he can make something special happen with a half-touch. The question is whether Svensson can handle the Spaniard. One peculiar note is Seattle's inability to contain East teams this season, allowing 22 goals allowed in 11 games -- although most of those came at the beginning of the season. Still, it's an uncomfortable truth that could rear its head Saturday.
Why Seattle will win
TFC may have had the best regular season of all time, but the Sounders have arguably been the best team in the league in the past three months. Striker Will Bruin is in the form of his life, Dempsey is motivated to celebrate an MLS Cup this time in uniform and not street clothes and there is plenty to bolster the attack off the bench in the form of creative midfielder Victor Rodriguez and forward Jordan Morris. Seattle also has a man who seems to always come up big when it matters most in Torres. The Panamanian converted the winning penalty kick last year and scored the goal that qualified Panama for the World Cup. It's that kind of intangible that can swing this final Seattle's way.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .