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Sounders at Toronto FC, MLS Cup Final: Three Questions

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Better defenses, better attacks, and two teams trying for history.

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Columbus Crew at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Remembering the Seattle Sounders win over Toronto FC in 2016 to take MLS Cup is fun, but it is poor preparation for MLS Cup 2017. Both teams are changed, in some ways obvious and others that only those who follow the teams intently may notice.

A Toronto win would qualify them as having the greatest season in MLS history, with a treble and the points record. A Seattle win would put them in the lofty company of LA and DCU in winning back-to-back MLS Cups.

Oliver from Waking the Red answers Three Questions.

SaH: The biggest change for Toronto is the addition of Victor Vazquez. What has he meant to the season?

WtR: As has been well documented after what happened in last year's MLS Cup final, Toronto FC's main offseason priority was to find a creative midfielder capable of unlocking defences and making Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore's lives easier.

Vazquez has been that and then some. He creates - as hoped - leading the league in assists for most of the year before eventually being edged out by Sacha Kljestan. He chips in with goals himself, netting eight in the regular season and becoming one of TFC's most important sources of secondary scoring. And he dictates the flow of games, meaning Toronto now have two of the more dominant possession players in the league in their midfield.

The difference Vazquez is capable of making in the postseason has already become clear. We know TFC can pile up the goals when they are rolling, but it was the game in which they had to dig out a narrow win that they fell short in 2016. This year, Vazquez scored their opening goal of the playoffs away at the New York Red Bulls and then - though he had earlier had a penalty saved - provided the game-winning assist for Altidore to decide the Columbus Crew series. It has been much more of a grind to the final than last year's crazy run and it is entirely possible Toronto's season would be over without Vazquez.

SaH: TFC has the best defense in the East. Is it because they are more comfortable in their second season with the 3-4-1-2, or is there another reason for the great D?

WtR: The big improvement in Toronto's defence came last season, when they still played four at the back for a large part of the year. So while the change in system definitely made sense and has no doubt helped, I'd put more weight on the changes in personnel.

In 2016 that was Drew Moor, Steven Beitashour and Clint Irwin arriving and Michael Bradley dropping into a deeper-lying role to protect the defence. This year Toronto added Chris Mavinga - who, quietly, has not been far off Vazquez in terms of impact - and had Alex Bono take the gloves off of Irwin.

So it's really been about the additions they have been able to make and the growth of the players that were already at the club with a stronger cast around them. Eriq Zavaleta has become a really safe, solid centre-back and is only going to get better with every year of experience he puts under his belt. Justin Morrow has blossomed into one of the best attacking full-backs or wing-backs in MLS. Nick Hagglund has done nothing wrong all year except get injured twice, and currently doesn't get in the lineup as a result. He'll probably be groomed as Moor's successor next season.

SaH: Why will the Reds celebrate at home in 2017?

WtR: They're the best team in MLS and they're hosting the final. You don't get a bigger opportunity to win an MLS Cup than this.

That's not to say I'm putting their chances at 80% or 90% - the Sounders are good and peaking at the right time and regardless of the opponent, the sheer randomness of 90 minutes of soccer in the freezing cold with not-always-perfect refereeing should keep you humble.

But even if they haven't lit up the playoffs so far, they're here. One home win by any means necessary for the perfect season. Time to deliver.

Projected lineup: Bono; Zavaleta, Moor, Mavinga; Beitashour, Delgado, Bradley, Vazquez, Morrow; Altidore, Giovinco


WtR: The Sounders are clearly a better, deeper team than in 2016. Who has been the most important addition this year?

SaH: There are nine players who played in the first four playoff games that weren't on the active roster when Seattle and Toronto met in the 2016 final. That includes four to six starters, depending on what lineup is selected. Will Bruin is the new double-digit goalscorer. Kelvin Leerdam is the highest paid right back in the league. Gustav Svensson just helped Sweden make the World Cup by beating Italy. Victor Rodriguez grew up in La Masia. Nouhou is the most unconventional, good left back in the league (though he doesn't always start). That's a lot of talent to bring in after winning MLS Cup (we've sometimes called it a rebuilding year that went really well).

But the biggest difference is Clint Dempsey. In 2017 he will not be watching from a box. He will be participating. Deuce has three goals in the 2017 playoffs. Only three teams have more goals in the playoffs than Clint does (Red Bulls, Crew and Vancouver). Clint has yet to play in an MLS Cup his team won. His two appearances with the Revolution were during their Losing Dynasty era. He watched the miracle of '16 from the sidelines/stands. But he's still hungry and he's not finished yet.

WtR: Brian Schmetzer seems a modest, understated kind of guy and perhaps flies under the radar as a result. What has made him the right fit for the Sounders?

SaH: It's not about the tactics. Seattle's system is not complex. It's a rather stock 4-2-3-1 that can shift into a 3-1-5-1 in the attack with that width coming from the fullbacks, while one of the defensive mids sits in between the centerbacks. Usually the "wide" mids are playing inverted and/or narrow. Most of the attackers press after a turnover. It isn't complex, and will never win an award. Brian Schmetzer doesn't win because of tactics.

Brian Schmetzer wins because of attitude. He has buy-in from every single player. They are willing to work harder for the city than they would under another coach. Seasoned vets with "bad attitudes" influence the youngsters. Whether native sons, adopted family, or mercenaries, every single player believes in Schmetz's belief in Seattle. In a league with this much parity, under a GM that collects this level of talent, getting this level of buy-in means that Sounders win 55% of duels. They pick up more second balls. It's tiny stuff at the margins.

There is no greater motivator than Brian Schmetzer, and yet he'll refuse to say it's about him. At every opportunity he points to players and this city as the reasons for his success. It does not matter if he is right or wrong. It is said so frequently it is clear that he believes, and so we do, and so the players do.

WtR: Why should TFC fans be worried about history repeating itself?

SaH: Seattle is in middle of a shutout streak that runs not just to last MLS Cup, but to two games before it. No team has scored against the Sounders in the playoffs since the 13th minute of the first leg against Colorado in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. The defense is not just good, but great. On the season Seattle held teams to the third fewest goals against (Sporks and TFC beat them), and since adding Kelvin Leerdam at right back the team has 12 shutouts in his 18 starts. Only twice did teams score more than a single goal against the Sounders with Leerdam at right back.

The defense that held TFC to no goals on 17 shots, gives up fewer shots than it did, more frequently gets shutouts, and forces teams to shoot from distance. It isn't just about the right back. Seattle applies pressure throughout the field forcing bad passes that Cristian Roldan, Chad Marshall and Roman Torres can clean up.