Saturday’s MLS Cup final is winner-take-all. Unlike the two-leg conference semifinals and finals, the league championship is just one game.
TORONTO — On Friday, the eve of the biggest game of many of their soccer-playing lives, the Sounders took in their surroundings and stretched legs stiffened by the cold.
They landed in Toronto on Wednesday evening, practiced at their host’s training facility in the suburbs Thursday afternoon. This was the team’s first chance to survey the field of battle, divided into sun and shade by BMO Field’s gleaming new roof.
Saturday’s MLS Cup final is winner-take-all. Unlike the two-leg conference semifinals and finals, the league championship is just one game. At the end of the night, 90 minutes plus the addition of two 15-minute overtime periods then penalty kicks if the score is still tied, either Toronto or Seattle will emerge with its first MLS title.
The first iteration of the Sounders reached the NASL’s Soccer Bowl in 1977 and ’82 but lost both to the New York Cosmos. A minor-league version of the club won the USL in 2005 and 2007, but even those who were a part of those teams admit that the level of attention and hype was much different.
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This would be the long-awaited breakthrough for a club that has set the MLS standard by almost every metric except the one that matters most.
With all of that on the line, veterans and young players alike preached the value of normalcy. Though they were swarmed by a much-larger media contingent after Friday’s practice session, once they got back onto the team bus, a familiar rhythm set in.
After practice: Team lunch, followed by one more film session, team dinner and then the long, interminable wait before Saturday’s 5 p.m. PST kickoff.
“You’ve got to treat it the same. It’s tough. The atmosphere will be intense. Obviously, there’s all this stuff before games,” defender Tyrone Mears said, gesturing at the media scrum around him. “But you’ve just got to accept it. You’ve got to do this kind of stuff, switch off, go back to the hotel, do the tactics, eat well and just focus on the game. Everything else will take care of itself.”
It will be imperative, Mears said, to survive the first 10 minutes unscathed. Playing at home, in front of a sellout crowd of roaring Canadians, Toronto is expected to fly out of the gates. It’s up to Seattle to parry those early blows, allow the tempo to settle and play to its strengths.
Some matchups to watch: Toronto forward Jozy Altidore versus Sounders center backs Chad Marshall and Roman Torres promises to be no-holds-barred; Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso will stick close to explosive Toronto attacker Sebastian Giovinco for as long as his gimpy knee allows; and Jordan Morris is sure to test the limits to Toronto’s three-man defensive line from the outset.
For Sounders veteran Brad Evans, who won the MLS Cup with Columbus in 2008, the task is straightforward enough.
“In the final, you finish one or two chances, you play tight defensively and you win the championship,” Evans said. “Play within yourself. Play within the team. Play for the badge. That’s how you win games.”
His younger teammates took a similar tack.
“For me, it’s about relaxing,” second-year midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “Not letting the moment get to you. Understand that it’s a big game, but for us young guys, if we can get nervous or overwhelmed by all of this hype around the game, it can affect the way we play. For me, just enjoy the moment and relax. Play the game of soccer we’ve been playing our whole lives.”
Only coach Brian Schmetzer copped to the emotions that must be churning somewhere beneath their collective resolve. Yet even the man with the figurative knighthood of Seattle soccer on the line mostly kept his cool Friday.
“I’ll have butterflies right before kickoff, but I don’t have to play anymore,” Schmetzer said. “So I’m not that nervous. You’re running through your mind what you’re going to say, how you’re going to present certain things to your team. But it’s not nerves.”
We’ll see if that holds true through the final few bars of “O, Canada” on Saturday night in a stadium full of red and the ultimate prize on the line.