The $6.5 Million Bet - MLS Cup 2019
The 2019 MLS playoffs have been a difficult time for bookmakers.
The favourites have often fallen, with both the Eastern and Western Conference Finals offering a shock result.
The Seattle Sounders went to Los Angeles and eliminated the best team in the regular season, LAFC, while Toronto FC travelled down to Georgia to perform a similar trick against Atlanta United.
Both Toronto and Seattle were well drilled and clinical in attack. Consequently, it makes Sunday’s meeting at CenturyLink Field, an awkward game to try and predict.
For Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley, this game represents a $6.5million bet. That’s how much Bradley is currently earning with Toronto, the second-highest total in MLS behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Bradley is also out of contract at the end of the season, although the club can trigger an option to keep him on his current contract for the 2020 season.
There is also a way in which Bradley can take that decision out of the clubs hands -- by winning MLS Cup. The Athletic reported in July that the midfielder is contractually guaranteed an extension if he wins MLS Cup.
In the eyes of some TFC fans, Bradley will have earned every cent of that deal if he can help orchestrate a victory in Seattle.
The two sides will feel a familiarity when they enter the field having contested two of the last three MLS Cup finals (they both won one each). When they met in April at CenturyLink Field, the Sounders prevailed 3-2. In that match, Alejandro Pozuelo assisted both Toronto goals, scored by Jozy Altidore.
“It was a difficult game, a physical game,” Pozuelo said of that match. “We know on Sunday it might be the same because they are a good team and physical. But we’ll be ready.”
Altidore has so far missed the playoffs due to injury, but there has been talk this week that he may be fit for Sunday.
“He’s doing good,” coach Greg Vanney said of Altidore. “He hasn’t trained with the group specifically, but physically he’s doing good. We really won’t know anything until we actually put him in the middle of a training session and see where he’s at. But in terms of, we’re getting him to where we want, to see what that looks like.”
In Altidore’s absence, Pozuelo has often produced something special. The former Swansea player has operated as a false 9 for Toronto. When Vanney has sought a more traditional striker, he has turned to mid-season signing Patrick Mullins from the bench. Altidore has sounded less than confident about playing, but Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer expects to see some involvement from the U.S. international.
“[It’s] not mind games because Greg [Vanney] is a good guy, I don’t think he plays mind games,” Schmetzer said after Sounders training on Wednesday. “But look, whether Jozy plays or not, we’ll be prepared. I expect — again, it’s the last game, this is it, it’s the last game of the year — I expect him to be involved in some way.”
While Toronto have had to adapt to injuries Seattle have enjoyed an almost entirely fit squad during the postseason.
Their attacking triumvirate of Jordan Morris, Raul Ruidiaz and Nicolas Lodeiro caused LAFC nightmares in the Western Conference Final. Their blend of speed, guile, and creativity will be a stern test for a TFC defence that has kept just one clean sheet in its last 13 games (Seattle have managed four).
The fact Toronto have sprung surprises so consistently on route to the final, however, is what makes this game so exciting. Seattle saw first hand in LA how being favourites can add unnecessary pressure. They could easily fall foul of that fate on Sunday if they get swept up in the idea of winning MLS Cup at home and fail to strike a balance between risk and reward.
And that is why these two finalists may be defined by who best handles the pressure. Neither Toronto nor Seattle counted a player in the league’s best XI for 2019, but now it is just they who remain, 90 minutes away from success or sadness.
“If you’re able to win this game, you get some real respect in terms of MLS teams that have accomplished something,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “But if you don’t, then you’re a footnote.”
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