For long stretches of this final it looked as if Stefan Frei was about to singlehandedly thwart Toronto yet again. But this time Jozy Altidore proved to be his nemesis.
Having produced one of the iconic saves in Major League Soccer history to deny Altidore during the smash-and-grab Seattle win here in the 2016 final, Frei resumed where he left off, with a string of acrobatic and reflex saves to keep a rampant Toronto team at bay until the 67th minute of the 2017 repeat edition.
This time, though, Altidore would have the last laugh by running through to score the breakthrough goal. Having hobbled to his feet to score the key strike against Columbus Crew that put Toronto in this final, Altidore again proved decisive.
After looking like he would remember these play-offs for all the wrong reasons following his red card against the New York Red Bulls, Altidore – the MLS Cup MVP – flipped the script again when it mattered. By the time Victor Vazquez bundled in a second in injury time, it just confirmed what had looked apparent from that momentous opening goal: Toronto would be champions.
“This has been the dream for four years,” Michael Bradley told ESPN afterwards. “Since the day I got here. And for the last year, the dream has become an obsession. And for this group of guys to work every single day, having to remember last year, to get back here, to play that game, in this atmosphere, with that on the line, it’s unbelievable.”
Somewhere amid the Toronto onslaught Seattle registered a shot — their first in 150 minutes of MLS Cup play against Toronto — when Joevin Jones hit an aimless ball across the box that was technically on target when Alex Bono made a routine catch. They would barely trouble the Toronto goal again.
Toronto’s MLS coach of the year, Greg Vanney, can be obsessive to a fault in the way he thinks his way through games, and when the line-ups came out and it became clear he had switched his team to a 4-4-2 diamond, the first impression was that this was an unexpectedly reactive move for a home coach to make — the type that comes back to vindicate or haunt a coach depending on the outcome.
In last season’s final Vanney’s wide men in the 3-5-2 formation had pinned Seattle back and kept their full-backs out of the game; this narrow configuration seemed to rob him of that option and invite Seattle into the game.
That, it seems, was the plan. With Jones duly emboldened to push up on the left in the early open exchanges, there was space for Toronto to exploit behind him. Vazquez was switching play at will, Altidore was holding up the ball and Sebastian Giovinco was consistently sniffing around goal. Behind them the energetic Marky Delgado and the calm presence of Bradley were shutting off most glimpses of goal Seattle had and unsettling their midfield on the ball. Cristian Roldan in particular was utterly anonymous in the first half.
No goals for Toronto, though. Stretched as they looked at times in chasing Toronto shadows, Seattle had conceded just 12 in their last 20 games, and none in these play-offs. When Chad Marshall and Roman Torres play together at the heart of defense they rarely concede easily, but in this game they had Frei to thank for keeping the contest close.
The Swiss goalkeeper had barely palmed a Jonathan Osorio shot round the post in the 10th minute when he was off his line seconds later to thwart Giovinco, with the Italian put clean through on goal by another raking Vazquez pass. The pattern was set.
A stinging Delgado shot was palmed over by an off-balance Frei on 35 minutes. And two minutes before half-time, the keeper sprawled full-length to his right to push away a Vazquez drive.
The second half brought more of the same. If anything, Toronto looked to have closed down the few options for quick counters up the middle that the Sounders had managed to identify in the opening 45 minutes.
And the Red team kept coming forward. Bradley smashed a shot that ricocheted off Frei’s chest to safety, on the hour, then four minutes later, Altidore found himself in space on the edge of the box and touched the ball inside to Giovinco. The Italian checked and placed a shot low to Frei’s left. But not past him. Again Frei scrambled the ball to safety.
A lesser team might have second-guessed themselves at this stage — but Toronto were still playing like men possessed to recover the ball on the rare occasions they lost it, and they got their reward with a breakthrough on the counter in the 67th minute. Working the ball quickly up the middle, their midfield found Giovinco in the perfect spot inside Toronto’s half to flick the ball on and split the defense for the marauding Altidore. He duly charged into the box, took the ball to his left for the angle, and hammered the ball emphatically past Frei.
Seattle immediately brought on Jordan Morris for the disappointing Victor Rodriguez, but there was little to suggest they had another gear to find. Clint Dempsey had been touted as the potential difference this year, having missed last year’s play-offs with his heart ailment, but like most of his team-mates he had few opportunities to stall the Toronto momentum. He has now lost three MLS Cup finals.
Toronto came into MLS Cup as perhaps the most underwhelming overwhelming favorites in recent league history. Through a long and grinding play-off campaign, the free-flowing attack that had taken them to an MLS record points haul, a Supporters’ Shield and a Canadian Championship, was nowhere to be seen. Their forced march towards an unprecedented MLS treble had seemed to run contrary to the lightness with which Seattle wore their own status as defending MLS Cup holders.
But on Saturday, Toronto found their swagger again, and this year fortune favored the brave.
This article was written by Graham Parker at BMO Field, for theguardian.com on Sunday 10th December 2017 00.07 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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