Major League Soccer
Seattle a Worthy Winner; Toronto a Fave for 2017
December 12, 2016
TORONTO—While acknowledging Lionel Messi’s brilliance as a player, British commentator Andy Gray once famously quipped: “But can he do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke?” The retort now to anyone succeeding a cold night in Stoke is: “But can he do it on a freezing night in Toronto?”
THe 2017 MLS Cup was a brutal game played in brutal conditions. At first it looked like Toronto would coast and it was clearly the better team in the game. But it paid the price for its poor finishing and poor execution in the final third and ultimately deserved to lose. In the end, Seattle made them pay in a shootout without ever notching a shot on goal after 120 minutes of scoreless action.
“I am not criticizing the team but I really wish we could have played a little bit better,” Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer said afterward. “There were key moments where we didn't connect that simple pass or we turned it over. I don't know if it was our best soccer game.”
It wasn’t, but it didn’t matter.
There was a lot of optimism for this game heading into the final. Toronto had scored 17 goals in its first five playoff games. Seattle has played enthralling soccer at times as it rebounded from a horrible start to the season where it was in ninth place as recently as August 14. There was also a wide array of quality players in Sebastian Giovinco, Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore.
But in the end the final was a dud for neutral fans. It was hard fought and emotional, but the conditions and the fact that it was a final (which only rarely live up to expectations) created a downer. Seattle fans should have every reason to celebrate, however, as they are worthy champions. They built their team on defense while Morris and Lodeiro were fantastic for most of the year.
Torres was the Man of the Match
Roman Torres was the best player in the game. The 30-year-old Panama international was a rock in central defense for Seattle and had to clean up numerous opportunities as Toronto applied most of the pressure in the game. His physical presence was a true anchor for Seattle and he did well in his matchups against Jozy Altidore and Jonathan Osorio.
In the end it was fitting that Torres hit the winning penalty in the sixth round to give Seattle the win.
Bradley’s poor PK spoils decent effort
One of the lasting images from this game will be Michael Bradley’s terrible penalty in the shootout where his attempt to place the shot to the lower left side was easily saved by Stefan Frei. That miss played a key part in Toronto's loss.
Whether that is fair or not, Bradley actually played a pretty decent game. He was not spectacular but he was pivotal to the fact that Toronto controlled the midfield over 120 minutes. Toronto had several scoring chances, mostly in the first half, and Bradley was instrumental in the build-up.
Bradley’s defense stood out. He tracked back and broke up two of Seattle’s best offensive plays—one coming on a Jordan Morris counter-attack where Bradley forced him to the sideline before stripping the ball.
“[Bradley] was fantastic for the whole game,” said Greg Vanney said afterward. “He competed hard, closed people down, dug things out, kept the ball moving. He did what he did; what he’s capable of doing, for 120 minutes for our group; gave us a great chance to win a game.”
“It’s never easy,” Vanney added. “Michael’s a guy that prides himself on working hard and being a leader. He’s a great leader. Anybody can miss a penalty. So, he will be our leader whether he scored or not. We count on him, we need him, and he’s going to be back better than ever.”
But in the end, the penalty was simply bad and big moments are what determine legacies.
Frei’s save was a classic
Stefan Frei’s save on Altidore’s header in the second half of extra time may go down as the most important and most impressive saves in league history. Not only was the degree of difficulty off the charts, but without that save Seattle has no chance to win MLS Cup. You combine these two factors and you end up with something historic.
It was stunning to watch and it caps a remarkable playoff run for Frei, who was also incredible in the first round when Seattle won a hard-fought battle against Sporting Kansas City.
Morris adds to banner year
Just inside of one calendar year Jordan Morris has accumulated an incredible amount of silverware. He has won the Hermann Trophy, the NCAA Championship, the MLS Rookie of the year, and now MLS Cup. He has one of the biggest rookie salaries in MLS history and has been worth every penny. When Clint Dempsey’s season ended with a heart ailment, Morris stepped up and raised his game to the point where Dempsey’s absence was almost forgotten.
There were questions this year as to whether or not Morris should have started his career with Seattle after having a trial with Werder Bremen but it would be tough to argue that he didn’t make the right decision in the end.
He had a ton of pressure to perform in Seattle and no other rookie had more expectations than Morris this year. In total he amassed a whopping 3,564 minutes for Seattle across all competitions and was integral to his team’s success.
There is a very good chance Morris doesn’t play his whole career in Seattle. In fact, it would not be surprising to see him eventually receive better offers than Werder sooner than later. As for a career starting point, things could not have gone better for Morris.
Toronto will be back
The heartbreak for Toronto FC will linger for a long time. This team clearly should have won the title after a playoff run where it was able to score at will. Then, to control the final at home and be unable to execute only to lose in a shootout is a gut-wrenching way to exit.
But this team has made strides. It reached the playoffs for the first time in 2015 and in 2016 it advanced to MLS Cup as the favorite. The progress the team has made under Vanney is considerable. One of its biggest weaknesses in 2015 was its defense but that was far better in 2016 and it held Seattle without a shot on goal. In fact, betting on Giovinco, Altidore, Osorio, Ricketts, and Bradley to find the back of the net over two hours of play is still the safe bet. It just did not happen.
The big question will be keeping the core together. Michael Bradley is once again the subject of transfer rumors to head back abroad. Sebastian Giovinco has dominated MLS for two seasons and might look for a new challenge. If all of these players return, however, Toronto will head into 2017 as the unquestionable favorite in the Eastern Conference and perhaps the entire league.
But either way, Toronto knows the formula for success in this league and thanks to a huge, supportive fan base, it is willing to use the resources to spend on talented players in their prime to get it done.