What makes a rivalry? Sometimes it’s geography, as the Hudson River derby, Cascadia derby and El Trafico will attest to. Sometimes it’s bad blood. You could ask Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake about that. And other times, it’s a longstanding history of pure disdain similar to that felt by D.C. United and the New York Red Bulls.
But can a rivalry be born out of pure achievement? Can two teams develop into enemies based purely on frequent meetings on the biggest stage? Does defining an era actually create a legacy that can extend when dominance dies down?
Well, it depends on who you ask.
The Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC will collide on Sunday for an MLS Cup rubber match that looked all too improbable just several weeks ago. This was supposed to be a new era, a new time. New rivals were supposed to emerge. These two had their day, and each left with an MLS Cup in hand.
Yet, here they are, once again set to face off for the league’s ultimate prize for the third time in four years. They may not be rivals in the traditional sense of the word. There’s no bad blood or trash talk here. But, given recent history, it’s a matchup that, for one reason or another, feels different, perhaps even special.
“I don’t shake my head at it,” TFC midfielder Jonathan Osorio said. “It means something, shows the consistency of the clubs in the last four years and what it means to be a top club in this league. All three times we’ve made it to MLS Cup we’ve done it in different ways, Seattle as well. The two clubs just find a way to win big games and that’s what matters.”
Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan added: “Maybe other people think differently, but I don’t feel like there’s a true rivalry here. I think there are two teams that mutually respect each other and have the same attitude and intensity and mentality to win trophies. It’s really cool to see Toronto here again and it’s the best team that wins.”
Sure, there have been different paths to this point. Since the moment they came into the league, the Sounders have been a dominant force in MLS, making the playoffs each and every season. Toronto FC, meanwhile, have not. There were some lean years. Some “worst team in the world” years.
But, now that they’ll have a chance to truly settle things, for one team to emerge as the dominant force, one thing has become abundantly clear: these two teams have more things in common than they do differences.
Since the second their massive crowds changed the game for MLS, the Sounders have been the pillar of consistency. They’ve had two coaches in the franchise’s 11 MLS seasons. They haven’t missed the playoffs once. The Sounders have always been okay with spending on big-name talent while fostering some of their own. But, with the rise of Los Angeles FC, the Sounders were an afterthought in the West.
Toronto FC, meanwhile, has been similar since the club became a “bloody big deal” several years ago. The initial foray failed, but the club’s addition of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley set a tone that would define a club. Giovinco has since left, replaced by Alejandro Pozuelo, but this is still a team built around big-name veterans with some under-the-radar pieces in between. But, with the surge of Atlanta United, Toronto FC were no longer the best team in MLS history.
Yet, here they both are once again for a rubber match. Similar paths lead to similar outcomes.
“It’s hard to be consistent in this league, first and foremost,” said Roldan. “The fact that Toronto didn’t make the playoffs last year and now they’re back in MLS Cup, it’s hard to do. To get back for the third time in four years is incredible in a league that’s so parity driving. It’s two clubs that are willing to take chances on players and willing to spend a bit of money, but, at the same time, it’s the mentality within the locker room, the front office, to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go for another trophy’.”
But this time around, nothing that happened in the past few years matters. Stefan Frei’s miraculous save in 2016 isn’t on the minds of anyone from Toronto FC. Vazquez’s late clincher from 2017 has virtually been forgotten. It’s a rubber match, sure, and shared history counts, but these two teams aren’t the same ones that battled each other on those frigid nights during the Toronto winter.
The faces have changed since their first two meetings. Giovinco is gone, as is Clint Dempsey. Chad Marshall and Ozzie Alonso have left too. Steven Beitashour and Victor Vazquez have also moved on. But there’s still something familiar about this matchup as both teams have seemingly loaded and reloaded while being overlooked in the process.
“It’s the same opponent. Their team has changed a little bit, and so has ours,” Bradley said. “We feel like we have a pretty good grip on them, what makes them good, who makes them good. The things that they try to do as they go into games. I’m sure they feel in a similar way about us. But there’s still a part to this third final where, two years on, both teams have changed and evolved.
“The setting is different. You always use past experiences to help you in every possible way. I don’t think anybody is going to spend too much time thinking or worrying about what’s gone on in the past.”
The focus will be on the present, or at least on Sunday’s immediate future. Sunday’s match is a chance at furthering a legacy. Whoever wins will become the sixth club to win multiple MLS Cups but, perhaps more importantly, whoever wins will become the flagbearer for what will go down as one specific era of MLS history.
There have been plenty of other eras. Early history was defined by D.C. United before the LA Galaxy put together two sustained periods of dominance. The Sounders and Toronto FC seemingly split the plaudits as MLS moved towards a new era, MLS 4.0, defined by the rise of expansion clubs like LAFC and Atlanta. However, that shift has now been deemed premature as the Sounders and TFC have signalled that their time is not done just yet.
That adds weight to Sunday’s match. It’s a clash that has more at stake than just an MLS Cup. It’s a chance at MLS immortality and a chance to define careers and franchises forever.
Sunday is one last chance to see two historically-consistent sides go head-to-head. Or is it?
“The reality is, if you win a trophy, it should motivate you to win another one,” Roldan said. “Losing shouldn’t motivate you. Once you win it, you want to get there again. It would just mean we need to play another game, right? Another final. And the reality is I think these teams will get to another final and play each other again.”
Maybe this rivalry will go on after all.