Will Toronto FC Win Their First MLS Cup?
Toronto FC Possess Unprecedented Depth
The salary structure of the MLS prevents teams with deep pockets from purchasing an MLS Cup. Other than designated players, who don’t count against the salary cap, franchises must build a winning side with a limited budget. Toronto has managed to make the most of a $3.845 million limit for 20 roster spots, surrounding Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Sebastian Giovinco with superb support.
A quick look at team statistics confirms the evolution of the Reds from year-to-year. In 2016, Seba shouldered a massive portion of the attack, scoring 17 goals and 15 assists. Jozy netted 10 and assisted five, while Justin Morrow pitched in five goals.
This season, five Toronto players have seven or more goals. The addition of Victor Vazquez changed the complexion of the offense, reducing the burden for Giovinco. Vazquez created 16 assists in 2017, adding eight goals from the midfield. The result was a 23-goal jump in production for Toronto, totaling 74 goals – the most in a single campaign since the inaugural 1998 season.
Toronto didn’t sacrifice on the defensive end to produce an impressive goal total. Last year, they conceded 39 strikes, the second-best in the MLS. The Reds conceded two fewer goals this year, scoring twice as much as their opposition. Toronto’s +37 goal differential is the best since the +41 mark set by the 1998 Los Angeles Galaxy.
The MLS has never been as competitive as now, and Toronto’s domination this year has forced many to consider the possibility that this version of the Reds is the best team in league history – on paper.
MLS Cup Playoffs Hostile To Favorites
Unlike other North American pro leagues, performing well in the regular season doesn’t confer a big advantage in the post season, until the side makes the MLS Finals. Playing the second leg of a playoffs series at home provides a slight advantage for favorites, but not enough to overcome strong challengers.
In fact, only the 2011 Los Angeles Galaxy have won the MLS Cup as a number one playoff seed. The rest of the top seeds have fallen before the finals. Second seeds make the MLS Finals most often, with six finalists in five years originating from second spot in their conference. Last year, Supporters’ Shield winners Dallas FC were knocked out by the eventual champions, the Seattle Sounders. New York Red Bulls, the top east seed, lost their semi-final matchup against the Montreal Impact.
Perhaps the extra week of rest causes top seeds to become rusty, or maybe teams playing in the knockout round tend to be more inspired. Either way, the Reds can’t afford to lapse against any playoff opponent, because a single bad half could turn into an insurmountable obstacle – similar to how the Montreal Impact nearly eliminated Toronto during the first sixty minutes of last year’s conference finals, before Bradley lead an amazing comeback.
Only The Reds Can Beat Themselves
The sole, legitimate concern prior to the MLS playoffs would be the potential that Toronto FC peaked during the summer, and play like the winners of the Supporters’ Shield. Toronto wasn’t horrible, but there was a drop off in quality of play when it became obvious that the Reds all but clinched top spot in the MLS. Playing like front runners will allow underdogs to outhustle Toronto FC.
Toronto’s the favorite to win the MLS Cup because no team will beat them if they play close to their capacity. On the eve of the eastern conference semi-finals, the Reds know that the only side who can beat them are themselves.
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