As if playing their third MLS Cup final in four seasons wasn’t enough, some are adding “Team of the Decade” stakes to Sunday’s clash between the Sounders and Toronto FC.
The Sounders held their introductory news conference with assorted national media Thursday afternoon — to be followed by Toronto FC once they landed in town — where they talked up the finer points of repeat championship appearances and player cores that got both them and their opponents back here. But there’s a larger question of whether the pending second MLS Cup championship for one of the two qualifies them as the decade’s finest.
“That stuff’s going to be brought up,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said earlier this week. “I’m cognizant of it. I’m aware of it. But I think for us, just our overall body of work since 2009 is what we try to focus on and this is just a continuation of it for us.”
Even before the Eastern Conference final, Toronto coach Greg Vanney told reporters of his squad: “For me, this team is up there with some of the best that have been around.”
Sunday’s game could well depend on how intact Toronto’s core remains, given striker Jozy Altidore maintains it will take “a bit of a miracle” for him to play on his injured quad. Few are inclined to believe him, least of all the Sounders, but the fact remains Altidore over the years has been the central continuous figure of those great TFC teams, along with Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio and Justin Morrow. Chris Mavinga and Marky Delgado came a little later, in time for the 2017 title.
Losing Altidore, in other words, would amount to a huge blow regardless of how well Toronto played without him in these playoffs.
The Sounders, of course, still boast Nicolas Lodeiro, Stefan Frei, Jordan Morris, Cristian Roldan and Roman Torres from their 2016 title squad. They added Gustav Svensson, Victor Rodriguez and Kelvin Leerdam for the 2017 finals run.
“For me, I lost in 2017,” Sounders right back Leerdam said after Thursday’s workout in Tukwila, adding the matchup is more personal for him while “Team of the Decade” talk is something for media to debate. “Obviously, we’ve got some guys that won in 2016. For me, I think it’s my fifth (professional) final and I’ve only won one. So, for me it’s important to win.”
For Roldan, the consistency of both sides “is pretty incredible in a league that’s so parity driven” and makes Sunday’s clash compelling. But he danced around whether winning Sunday means bragging rights in a bigger picture beyond this year, saying: “It’ll make the other team even more driven, even more motivated to make it back into the final.”
Team of the Decade discussions used to begin and end with the Los Angeles Galaxy, which won three championships in four seasons in 2011, 2012 and 2014. But then, with David Beckham already gone and Landon Donovan on his way out, the team slipped into mediocrity as the second half of the 2010s unfolded.
Still, a championship is a championship and no matter what happens Sunday, the Galaxy will have one more this decade than either the Sounders or Toronto. Not to mention, the Galaxy’s title in 2014 came after directly knocking off the Supporters’ Shield-winning Sounders in the Western Conference final.
But the Sounders can make a case with their 11 consecutive playoff appearances as well as — according to MLS Digital editor Ben Baer — being first in regular season victories since 2010 with 176 compared to 165 for the No. 3 Galaxy and 118 for No. 10 Toronto.
Besides going to three MLS Cup finals — equaling the Galaxy and Toronto this decade — the Sounders also captured said Supporters’ Shield and four U.S. Open Cup titles, with three of those since 2010. Toronto is like the Galaxy in theirs being a half-decade of excellence, though quite a distinguished one with three MLS Cup appearances, potentially two championships, a Supporters’ Shield season that set an all-time league points record and a loss on penalty kicks in last year’s CONCACAF Champions League final.
So, to put it mildly, the Sounders must win Sunday to even be considered for Team of the Decade. Nobody bestowed such crowns on the 1990s Buffalo Bills or Atlanta Braves, or the 1970s Boston Bruins no matter how many Super Bowls, World Series or Stanley Cup Finals they went to simply because they didn’t win enough championships.
Let’s not forget, the Sounders have yet to even score an MLS Cup goal.
But take down Toronto a second time, there’s certainly enough of a consistent Sounders body of excellence over a prolonged regular season and playoffs to claim the decade theirs. Same thing on Toronto’s end if they prevail.
“It’s kind of crazy that three out of the last four years we’re playing against each other,” Morris said. “I think it’s just a testament to both teams and the organizations and the cities. And obviously, the players on the field and the coaching staffs. It’s pretty cool. Both cities are so passionate and so deserved.”
But only one can emerge on top.
And whoever does need not worry about the Galaxy leapfrogging their throne with another title next season — as a new decade will have begun.