Seattle-Toronto MLS Cup saga set for latest chapter as new faces join the drama
SEATTLE -- Familiarity breeds contempt. That's especially true when the one opponent standing between you and a championship is the same, year after year. Ask Alabama about Clemson, or Cleveland about Golden State.
Except, apparently, in Major League Soccer. Sunday marks the third MLS Cup final in four years between the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC (3 p.m. ET, LIVE on ABC), yet both sides have been quick to shoot down any notion of simmering resentment, let alone a full-blown rivalry.
"I don't necessarily think that, from my perspective, the last games mean anything toward the preparation for this," Toronto FC manager Greg Vanney told ESPN, and the coach's captain sang from the same hymn sheet.
"You prepare for what's in front of you, you prepare for this game," Michael Bradley said. "Looking back at this point doesn't do a whole lot of good. Yes, both teams have a handful of guys who have been there through all three games, but you live in the moment, you play what's in front of you and that's exactly what we'll do."
Why play down one of the most compelling facets of this title game? It's one fewer distraction in a week full of cross-country travel, hyper media attention locally and internationally, and heightened pressure in the Emerald City.
Another reason? There genuinely isn't as much familiarity between these two teams as you might think. Of the 27 players listed on Toronto's roster in 2016, just 11 remain. In Seattle, only six of the 28 men who won MLS Cup that season are still with the club.
"I think every year everything's completely different," Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei, who backstopped the Sounders to both of their MLS Cup appearances, told ESPN. "In this league, you have a lot of moves happen all the time. You can't go to the postseason and be like, 'Oh, well two years ago we were here.' Well, two years ago half the squad wasn't here."
Indeed, never mind the considerable turnover in the past 24 months, the makeup of both sides has changed considerably since they met in May this year, when Seattle prevailed 3-2 at CenturyLink field. Jozy Altidore and Will Bruin each scored twice; the former is questionable to play Sunday with a quadriceps injury and the latter has been out since June with a torn ACL.
"We don't have that much familiarity with them because they are a much different team than they were in '16 and '17 and now," Seattle manager Brian Schmetzer told ESPN. "Even at the beginning of the year, Jozy played in that game, Jozy scored two goals.
"They have some of the same pieces, but is Omar [Gonzalez] going to play? That's a big piece. They didn't have [Nicolas Benezet]. I mean there was a lot of difference, subtle difference."
But while the players on the field have changed, many of those in the dugout and the front office have remained. Coaches Schmetzer and Vanney, for example, will be overseeing their third MLS Cup in four years.
Though Seattle general manager Garth Lagerway constructed the Sounders' title-winning squad in 2016 and is still calling the shots, his counterpart in Toronto, Ali Curtis, is in the midst of his first season in charge of the Canadian club, having replaced Tim Bezbatchenko, who spent five years building the Reds into perennial contenders.
Above all, the foundations of the two clubs remain; a sentiment recognized by Altidore, who's excited to square off against the same opposition he's met in this final twice before.
"I think that's actually the cool part, is you get the final against a team we've played them through overtime, we've played them through everything, so I don't know if there are any secrets there," Altidore said. "They have had some changes but I think it's still the same team in a lot of ways, in terms of the ideas and what they want to do, I think it's a pretty similar team."
Whatever has gone before, one thing is for certain: At the conclusion on Sunday, you can count on the two teams being entirely familiar with one another.