Once again, for the 22nd year in a row, the MLS Cup Final is upon us. Though, in a recent turn of events, this iteration of the finals showcases something never before seen: the Seattle Sounders returning to the final as defending MLS Champions. What's not different is that the Sounders will once again have to go through Toronto FC [cue boos] if they want to hoist the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy once again.
A rematch. The best team in the history of MLS versus a team that couldn't even register a shot. The Hawks versus the Mighty Ducks.
We invented being the underdogs.
The media narrative is already in full-swing. Toronto, having already set many records this season, are a much improved team than the one who played in last December's final. They have an unreal +37 goal differential this regular season. They have three of the MLS Best XI. They have the MLS Coach of the Year. They have a fan base that has been to hell and back rooting for this team, and while you might look at the players on that squad with disdain, their fans certainly deserve the opportunity to celebrate, as does every fan base in MLS.
Seattle, on the other hand, was lucky to finish second in the not-nearly-as-competitive Western Conference. Seattle was untested throughout the playoffs. Seattle benefited from red cards to their opponents. Seattle can't beat Toronto at BMO Field when considering how much improved the Toronto squad is, especially when they couldn't even get a shot off in last year's final.
Toronto is a team of destiny. Seattle is a mild inconvenience. Toronto already battled in the trenches to advance past a New York Red Bulls squad on the away-goal tiebreaker. Toronto narrowly edged out an impassioned and frenzied Columbus Crew squad fighting to save their team from extinction. What's Seattle to a bunch of juggernauts? We're coffee-sipping yacht enthusiasts who preen around claiming to invent things.
They talk about pressure, about how Toronto FC are under so much pressure. They have this historic season, and the failure of last year's MLS Cup fresh on their minds. They can't fail again. They can't let their fans down. Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, those poor, maligned USMNT superstars, on the heels of letting a nation down — they can't let their fans down, again. We're supposed to feel sorry for them. Sebastian Giovinco too, on a mission to prove Italy wouldn’t have missed the World Cup if they’d only included him on the roster. We're supposed to pity them. This is for Toronto. All fans of the USMNT are rooting for Altidore and Bradley to finally lift that trophy that is already theirs-by-rights. It's like the storybook has already been written. Destiny.
The Seattle Sounders are the underdogs, and rightly so. Sure, they beat a Vancouver Whitecaps team who mostly beat themselves with bad coaching decisions. Sure, they walloped a Houston Dynamo team that was given 100-to-1 odds at the beginning of the season to win the MLS Cup. But those victories, those advances, are more indictments against Vancouver and Houston than they are endorsements for the quality of Seattle. Seattle, when compared to Toronto, is lacking. Period. End of statement.
But what if ... and bear with me here because this might be some radical thinking ...
What if they're not?
I ran some numbers and I compared and contrasted the two teams with one another. Specifically, I was looking at xG and trends, wanting to know if Toronto truly is the clear No. 1 team in MLS history and if Seattle would just be lucky to be in the same room as our Canadian overlords.
The truth of the matter is, that answer might shock you.
Spoiler alert: Seattle might be the better team.
Now wait, for those of you who have already grabbed your keyboard to slam it down, or who have phones half-cocked and are ready to throw, let's calm that storm real fast. Breathe. Slowly. In through your nose. Out through your mouth. That's it. Good.
Disclaimers: 1) the numbers I'm about to throw at you do not include any bonuses for being a "big chance", which may or may not render xG viable, but the exclusion affects both teams, and 2) I am ignoring penalties for and against, which is decidedly favorable to Seattle, since Toronto has seemingly tied another record this season: most penalties awarded in regular and postseason play (they tie the 2014 Vancouver Whitecaps with 12).
Here's what the numbers tell me:
Toronto FC 34-game Regular Season
- xGF: 44.24
- xGA: 37.55
- xGD: 6.69
Seattle Sounders 34-game Regular Season
- xGF: 53.59
- xGA: 37.17
- xGD: 16.42
Wait, wait, wait. No, that can't be right. Plus, what happens prior to the summer transfer window should hardly count, since teams are so drastically different in March than they are in December. So let's shift the timeline slightly to adjust for what has happened since summer signings have started seeing playing time.
For Seattle, the arrival of Kelvin Leerdam shored up their one obvious weakness for the first 20 matches: right back. Prior to Leerdam's signing, the Sounders played one natural right back and four unnatural right backs in that spot, to varying degrees of success: Oniel Fisher, Brad Evans, Jordy Delem, Gustav Svensson, and Cristian Roldan. In the 14 games since (18 if playoffs are included), only Leerdam has played in that role. Let's look at the stats from that game forward.
Toronto FC 14 regular-season games since July 22 (Leerdam’s first start)
- xGF: 20.23
- xGA: 15.00
- xGD: 5.23
Seattle Sounders 14 games since July 22
- xGF: 26.17
- xGA: 10.94
- xGD: 15.23
xG claims Seattle has the better defense, xG claims Seattle has the better offense, and neither are particularly close.
Is this judgment fair though? Looking deeper into it, Toronto didn't have any summer signings. I shouldn't arbitrarily pick a date that's convenient for Seattle just to paint them in a better light. Since Toronto FC has had their squad intact since day one, let's look at Toronto's numbers since day one and Seattle's since July 23rd, but instead of an aggregate total, we'll do a per-game average.
Toronto Full Season:
- xGF/game: 1.30
- xGA/game: 1.10
- xGD/game: 0.20
Seattle since July 22nd:
- xGF/game: 1.87
- xGA/game: 0.78
- xGD/game: 1.09
No, no, this is all wrong. The Sounders can't be better than Toronto, we need to fix these numbers so that it fits in the narrative that Toronto is significantly better than Seattle. What about Toronto's numbers at home versus Seattle's numbers on the road? Surely that'll show Toronto as being the better team.
Toronto's 17 Home Games:
- xGF/game: 1.38
- xGA/game: 1.04
- xGD/game: 0.34
Seattle's Away Games with Leerdam:
- xGF/game: 1.48
- xGA/game: 0.98
- xGD/game: 0.50
What?! No! No, Seattle, stop it! Stop being better than Toronto. Ugh. The worst! Whatever.
You know what? I give up. I'm embracing this new reality, this new world in where Toronto isn't the better team. Who are the underdogs now? A team who rallied together to create the best defensive run this league has ever seen? A team who has controlled games in such suffocating and dominating fashion that pundits deemed those competitive matches to be noncompetitive?
Or is Toronto the true underdog? You know, the team who limped through these very same playoffs, both figuratively and literally, who have suffered from a lack of discipline, from the luck of the crossbar, from the benefit of the away-goals tiebreaker after losing a must-not-lose match at home?
Either way, as an intelligent, critical reader, I think you can come away with the same conclusions I did here...
SEATTLE SOUNDERS ARE GONNA WIN MLS CUP AGAIN!
THAT'S TWICE IN A ROW FOR THOSE COUNTING!
IT'D BE COOL IF WE JUST WON IT EVERY YEAR!
THAT'S PROBABLY NOT THAT REALISTIC THOUGH NOW THE MORE I THINK ABOUT IT, MAYBE EVEN A LITTLE BORING AFTER A WHILE!
I USED TO GET GOLD STARS BY BEHAVING IN CLASS!
THE SEATTLE SOUNDERS GET GOLD STARS BY BEING RUTHLESS!
WE ARE THE TEAM OF DESTINY!
ALL THE AWARDS AND ACCOLADES MEAN NOTHING WHEN WE COME INTO YOUR HOUSE TWO YEARS IN A ROW AND WIN THE CUP!
SEATTLE SOUNDERS ARE GOING TO WIN THE MLS CUP AGAIN!