This Saturday sees one of the last marquee matches of the calendar year in the 2016 MLS Cup Final. The finale to another exciting MLS campaign, this season’s showpiece sees a Canadian side contest the MLS Cup for the very first time, as Toronto FC enter the fray at their own BMO Field. Their opponents in Ontario, the visiting Seattle Sounders, are also yet to add an MLS Cup to their honours list, meaning 2016 will see a new name engraved on North American soccer’s most cherished trophy. As the excitement builds in the run-up to the match, Kitbag.com has picked out three key players on either side to look out for this weekend.
Born in 1987 and playing at #87, Canadian international Tosaint Ricketts is a particularly versatile and much-travelled talent, turning out for various clubs in Finland, Romania, Norway, Turkey and Israel before returning to his native land in August on a free from Boluspor. Since his move, Rickett’s contributions to the Toronto cause have been sizable, with the 29-year old marking his arrival in the 6 with the winner against Real Salt Lake on August 3rd, before a seventh-minute strike in the 2-1 triumph at Orlando three weeks later. Despite his dismissal for two yellow cards in the following month’s rematch, Ricketts would return to score a last-minute equaliser at Saputo Stadium in October. He later snagged an important late second in the Eastern Conference semi-finals with New York City, before putting the Conference Finals beyond rivals Montreal, securing Toronto’s MLS Cup berth. Only starting four times in the season, Ricketts could well be Toronto’s secret weapon of choice.
Ten years on from his MLS debut, forward Jozy Altidore continues to make waves across the pond, with the experienced former New York Red Bulls, Villarreal, AZ Alkmaar and Sunderland man still a mere 27 years of age. With three English Premier League campaigns under his belt (including one on loan at Hull City), Altidore made his MLS homecoming in 2015 and quickly amassed an impressive ratio of more than one goal in every two games. In a particularly-prolific August, Altidore found the back of the net in four successive outings, breaching the defence of New England, Houston, Philadelphia and Orlando respectively. Then, after striking out in the narrow defeat to Montreal, the New Jersey native resumed normal service; scoring in the 2-1 win at Chicago Fire and doubling-up to helped Toronto undo a 3-1 deficit against the visiting Red Bulls, as the Canadian side salvaged a valuable 3-3 draw. Remarkably, 99-cap Altidore has found the net in all five of the club’s 2016 play-off matches to date, making him a formidable force for the Sounders to contend with this weekend.
The franchise’s top goalscorer in all competitions, Italy’s Sebastian Giovinco also heads the MLS in shots this season, with only the inimitable David Villa hitting the target on more occasions. With 17 goals and 15 assists, Giovinco scored on the opening day in New Jersey, as well as helping Toronto snap a four-game winless streak in Washington and netting three times in three successive matches in April. Since moving to the Great White North, Giovinco has made the club’s BMO Field a real stomping ground, with one hat-trick in July’s 4-1 win over DC United followed by another in August against New England Revolution. Having previously made his name with Juventus, before making the EURO 2012 final in the colours of his national team, penalty-taker Giovinco has already enjoyed a fruitful MLS stint, claiming the 2015 Golden Boot and MVP awards, among a cluster of individual prizes. Now, after his ultimately-crucial opener helped Toronto to this summer’s Canadian Championship, Giovinco will look to cap his second year in North America with his first MLS Cup success; and his hat-trick in the post-season win over New York City at Yankee Stadium bodes well for the final.
A domestic champion in Argentina, Brazil, Netherlands and his native Uruguay, pass master Nicolás Lodeiro’s outstanding performances this MLS season saw him named the competition’s Newcomer of the Year, with four goals and eight assists from a mere 13 outings. After appearing for Uruguay on US soil in the summer’s Copa América Centenario, Lodeiro made the stateside switch full-time in July, arriving at CenturyLink Field from Boca Juniors and completing 94 passes in Sounders colours during the season’s second half; a record for the club in 2016. After a starring debut in the 1-1 draw with LA Galaxy, Lodeiro opened the scoring for Seattle in their 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake and would be responsible for a dramatic, 94th-minute equaliser that rescued a point against Houston Dynamo later in the month. Lodeiro would the repeat feat in the 80th-minute at San Jose in September. Four goals in five post-season outings only reaffirmed what we already knew; that despite his tendency to pick up a booking, this 27-year old is nothing short of a star man for Seattle.
In the absence of fellow Designated Player Clint Dempsey, Paraguayan striker Nélson Valdez could end up playing a pivotal role in this year’s MLS Cup Final; a fitting stage for what may be his Sounders swansong. Having competed extensively in Europe, Valdez has collected a host of team silverware in Germany, Russia and Greece , but is yet to experience such success on American shores; something he will be enthusiastic to address should this indeed prove his final MLS outing. Pitching up on a two-year contract, Valdez struggled to find form in his first Sounders season, courting considerable criticism in the process. Nevertheless, the 33-year old has emerged as an important figure for Seattle in the run to the MLS Cup Final, contributing the vital goal in the 1-0 knockout win over Salt Lake and leading the way in the subsequent aggregate triumph over FC Dallas. For the Sounders, the loss of Dempsey, the third-highest goalscorer in franchise history, will undoubtedly be a bitter blow. Nevertheless, should Valdez cap his improvement in form with a goal in the final decider, the South American would surely join sidelined teammate Dempsey as a significant name in Seattle’s soccer history.
Finally, MLS Rookie of the Year Jordan Morris has been an ever-present this current campaign, starting 32 of the club’s 34 fixtures and racking up over 2,800 minutes on the field, the most of any player on the Sounders roster. Scoring the winner against Columbus Crew in April and one of the team’s five against FC Dallas in July, further winning efforts against Real Salt Lake in August and Vancouver Whitecaps in September helped Morris complete his transformation from MLS newcomer to the Illinois club’s leading marksman. Praise for Morris’ displays have been widespread across US soccer, with even the Toronto camp complimentary of his efforts. Nevertheless, all admiration will be cast aside this weekend, when the highest of high stakes hang in the balance. Will the grand stage of Major League Soccer’s flagship fixture play host to the 22-year old’s crowning moment? Or will one of the established stars of Toronto that seek to shut him down succeed in keeping this surging Sounder at bay? The time for talking is nearly over and the stats can say little more. The 2016 MLS Cup Final awaits; but only one of Seattle and Toronto can add their name to history’s honour roll. Do Ricketts, Altidore and Giovinco have what it takes to keep the MLS Cup in Canada for the winter? Or will December 10th belong to Lodeiro, Valdez and Morris, as the coveted trophy travels back to the US? With a host of intertwining stories in play, it’s almost time to crown a new champion. AC
- Ricketts by Nick Turchiaro, USA Today Sports/Reuters
- Altidore by Nick Turchiaro, USA Today Sports/Reuters
- Giovinco by Nick Turchiaro, USA Today Sports/Reuters
- Lodeiro by John Sibley, Action Images
- Valdez by Scott Heavey, Action Images
- Fans by Troy Wayrynen, Action Images