Seattle vs. Toronto:  Fighting for  Dynasty

Seattle vs. Toronto: Fighting for Dynasty

After a wild playoff bracket, Seattle and Toronto have come out on top to face each other for the MLS Cup for the third time in four years.  This match-up was a surprise to everyone from the pundits on Matchday Central to the folks over at FiveThirtyEight.  But while the flashy teams like LAFC and Atlanta Untied were getting all the headlines, Seattle and Toronto were quietly working their way up the bracket, watching each other every step of the way.  

In fact, the success of both franchises goes all the way back to the regular season.  Seattle, though facing some real questions on defense, fought off the pack in a tightly contested and very talented Western Conference to take 2nd place just behind the red-hot LAFC.  Toronto, on the other hand, overcame some serious early season struggles to finish the season on a ten game unbeaten streak.

While there are certainly those who will bemoan yet another match-up between the burgeoning rivals, what’s at stake in this year’s MLS Cup is nothing less than ownership of the legacy of this era in MLS.  That may seem a little hyperbolic, but let’s take a little trip down MLS memory lane to put this matchup in context.  MLS history can be broken down into numerous eras, and most of them have one defining dynastic team.

The 90’s

The state of the league:

MLS launched in 1996 with ten founding teams.  The league was built as part of a deal with FIFA in exchange for hosting rights to the 1994 World Cup.  The early years were a crazy time full of strange rules, a downward counting clock, and the most absurd tiebreaker method you’ll likely ever see.  Teams played in front of small crowds in high-school stadiums and converted minor league ballparks, players made poverty wages, and the entire enterprise seemed destined for collapse.

In order to find coaches, the league looked to the college ranks, and dug up some of what would become the biggest names in American soccer.  People like Bob Bradley, Sigi Schmid, and most notably, Bruce Arena.

The Dynasty:

Arena took over as coach of DC United, and quickly established himself as one of the greatest competitors the league would ever see.  The team under Arena’s leadership rattled off three MLS Cups out of four appearances in the first four years of the league, and added one US Open Cup and two Supporters Shields in that time (though the Supporters Shield wasn’t officially awarded until 1999, DC was retroactively awarded the title for the 1996 season).  For the 90’s the Black and Red dominated all the conversations in the league.

Early 2000’s

The state of the league:

The early 2000’s were a tough time for the league.  Financial trouble and decreasing attendance led to them dropping the odd rules designed to appeal to American sports fans, and firing the original commissioner Doug Logan and replacing him with Don Garber.  If it weren’t for a cash infusion from owners Phillip Anschutz, Lamar Hunt, and the Kraft family, the league would’ve collapsed entirely in 2001.  As it was, the league folded its two Florida teams, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion, in 2002.  The league wouldn’t have any presence in the south for over a decade. 

Perhaps due to the fragile nature of the league, no one team dominated the early 2000’s.  But interest in the league grew after a surprising deep run into the 2002 World Cup by the US Men’s National Team.  This era saw the first titles won by San Jose and the LA Galaxy, as well as the fourth — and so far last — championship by DC United.

Late 00’s

The state of the league:

Having survived the crises of the early millennium, the league looked to build on the growing interest in the sport.  The 2005 season saw the launch of two new teams, Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake.  This was the first expansion for the league in eight years, and a clear sign that while the league wasn’t entirely out of danger, it was much steadier than it had been in recent years.  

Another sign of the improved health of the league was a spate of new soccer specific stadiums.  Early teams like Colorado, Chicago, and Dallas opened small stadiums in small towns hoping to attract suburban families.  The major advantage to these stadia was that teams not only no longer had to pay rent for fields to play on, but kept all the concession stand and parking revenues as well.

The late aughts were defined by growing expansion.  As mentioned above, the league started expanding again in 2005, and teams trickled in over the following years.  The league hovered at ten teams for years since contraction, but by 2010 had grown to fifteen teams.  Growing interest in the league led to higher attendance and rising player salaries.  The adoption of the Designated Player Rule, better known as the Beckham Rule, allowed teams to bring in the first real international superstars.  Players like David Beckham, Cuauthémoc Blanco, and the Juan Pablo Ángel brought even more attention to the league.

The Dynasty (of sorts):

This era was also defined by a curious team.  The New England Revolution went to four MLS Cup Finals in six years, including three consecutive trips in ’05, ’06, and ’07.  Yet the team lost every one of those matches, and still has never won the title.  Coach Steve Niccol lead a stacked team featuring playmaker Steve Ralston and striker Taylor Twellman that dominated the league during this time, but managed to lose all four titles — three of them in extra-time or penalties. 


The state of the league:

By 2010, the league was on much steadier ground, and started changing the demographics they were chasing.  In 2007, Toronto FC joined the league, and instead of marketing towards soccer families and suburbs, they targeted inner city young professionals.  Beer drinking, chanting, and raucous cheering sections first appeared in the league.  Seattle, launched in 2009, took that template and burst onto the scene with giant crowds and an unparalleled game-day atmosphere.  By 2010, the league got the message, and started following the lead of the youngest teams in the league.  MLS 2.0 was officially here.

It was during this time of shifting market attention that MLS started to pursue markets that would set up great rivalries with existing squads.  While there were rivalries dating back to the very earliest days of the league, the introduction of teams in Portland, Vancouver, Montreal, and Philadelphia created built-in geographical rivalries that were felt immediately around the league.  Cascadian and Canadian derby matches became must-see events to partisan and neutral fans alike.

The Dynasty:

But no team took better advantage of the growing salary cap and roster rules during this era than the LA Galaxy.  Driven first by the combination of Landon Donovan and David Beckham, and then Irish national Robbie Keane, and masterminded by legendary coach Bruce Arena, the Galaxy racked up three MLS Cup titles in 2011, 2012, and 2014.  They also added a couple Supporter’s Shields.  The Galaxy’s dominance during this era can’t be overstated.


The state of the league:

The last five seasons has seen continued growth in expansion, leading the league to well over twenty teams.  The league is expected to hit thirty teams in the next few years.  The addition of General and Targeted Allocation Money has significantly impacted player salaries leading to better players and a better product on the field.

When we look back at these days, the off the field storylines will be dominated by the new big-spending teams.  Atlanta United and LAFC in particular burst on to the scene with impressive home stadiums full of fans and owners willing to drop serious cash on the best talent.  The branding and experience of these teams leave some of the more venerable clubs from the early day, teams like the Revolution and the Rapids looking pretty drab in comparison.

The Dynasty:

On the field, however, is a different story.  The last few years has seen the dominance of the Cascadia teams, with the Sounders and the Timbers representing the conference in the last five MLS Cups.  And in the East, Toronto made a huge splash with the “Bloody Big Deal” when they signed Jermaine Defoe and Michael Bradley to giant contracts.  Then the following year (when the Jermaine Defoe signing fizzled out), they signed Jozy Altidore and Giovinco, sending a clear message that despite years of futility on the field, they were ready to compete.  And compete they did, when the followed a 2016 MLS Cup loss with a 2017 year for the ages, becoming the first MLS team to win a treble (MLS Cup, Supporters Shield, and Canadian Championship).

The fact that Seattle and Toronto traded MLS Cup titles in 2016 and 2017 only raised the stakes.  And though both teams regressed a bit in 2018, they’re back strong this year.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that the matchup between the two teams is what will define the current era.  Years from now, when we look back, we’ll look at these two teams as the dominating forces in the league.  The only question now is whose name is going to be on the legacy.

Finally we come full circle to next weekend’s game.  One team will hold at trophy at the end of that match, and in the years to come, we’ll look back at this era in MLS as their moment, their dynasty.  The losing team will only be known for not measuring up.  They’ll be the Joe Frazier to Muhammad Ali.  Just the foil that the other team proved themselves against.  What’s at stake in this game?  Nothing less than a dynastic legacy in MLS for years to come.

That is, of course, until Seattle and Toronto meet in MLS Cup 2020.

USL Championship Playoffs Quaterfinals

USL Championship Playoffs Quaterfinals

Seattle/TFC Part 3

Seattle/TFC Part 3