It should be no surprise that the first season during which MLS could legally enjoy a Guinness (its 21st) was such a remarkable delight. A season during which our domestic league’s narrative pint glass overfloweth. Massive turnarounds for NYCFC in the East and Colorado in the West. The defending champion Portland Timbers stumbling. And MLS Cup Playoffs that saw upset after upset. It all culminates Saturday evening in T Dot when newly minted Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer’s brings his boys to town to tussle with Greg Vanney and Co.
In preparation for the game, we spoke with FOX play-by-play commentator John Strong, a man who’s spent the better part of the last nine months in the pulpit of North America’s football cathedrals. We asked him what players he’ll be watching Saturday night, where the tactics battle will be won, and what Stoner and Alexi are ordering for dinner post-game.
MiB: It’s the big one, John. Give us a key player for each team and what they have to do to help their side win.
JS: Let’s start with Seattle and Cristian Roldan. He’s a player who deserves more recognition, and who U.S. national team fans should keep an eye on. It's only his second year in the league, and Seattle has sort of bounced him around to different positions. He was the one guy I think that benefited most directly from Brian Schmetzer taking over because the only real tactical tweak that Schmetzer made was switching from one holding midfielder to two, and putting Roldan next to Osvaldo Alonso, giving him regular starts. You can see now what a good player he has become, how confident he is, his willingness to go forward. It was his shot off the post that lead to Jordan Morris' equalizer in the first leg against Colorado. If you noticed during our pregame last week, Bruce Arena mentioned him unprompted, whereas three months ago Roldan was telling us, “I might go to Guatemala. I might go to El Salvador. I'm eligible to play for those countries. I'd like to play for the U.S. but I've heard no real interest.” All of a sudden, he's on Bruce Arena's radar. I think he's a great guy for what the January camp is made for. I'm excited to see him Saturday night.
For Toronto, the obvious one is Jozy Altidore, given how well he’s been playing. But I want to see what Sebastian Giovinco does. He was not as influential in the Montreal series, as a whole, as he had been in the conference semifinal, scoring the hat trick at Yankee Stadium against NYCFC. I think he has a chip on his shoulder from not being named as one of the top three MLS MVP candidates and the disparaging remarks from the Italian national team coach [Editor’s note: none other than Antonio Conte]. Will that fuel the fire and will he be that incredible player that he's been for the bulk of the last two years on the biggest day? MiB: Where on the field do you see this game being won? JS: You've got so many talented players right in the middle of the park: Will Johnson, Michael Bradley for Toronto and Alonso and Roldan for Seattle. You’ve also got talented attacking midfielders in Nico Lodeiro and Giovinco. But I wonder if it could be won out wide. Toronto plays that 3-5-2 look with Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow as wing backs. Greg Vanney even said that Justin Morrow is their best left-sided attacker. And it was Beitashour who delivered the wonderful cross that lead to Benoit Cheyrou’s goal in extra time in the second leg against Montreal.
That's the difference in the formations [Seattle plays 4-5-1] really, those two wing backs. And so, the effectiveness of getting the game wide for Toronto, getting up the field and sort of pulling Seattle up, or the Sounders being able to pin those guys back so they're defending with 5 which quickly becomes defending with seven, including Will Johnson and Michael Bradley.
MiB: Talk about that atmosphere in Toronto. What can we expect?
JS: Everyone in that building is dialed in to every kick and it's just amazing to see. We had a long chat with Michael Bradley about this. He talked about the difference when you go to places like Orlando, where there’s singing and dancing, a constant soundtrack to the game that gives it a South American feel. In Toronto, we’ve noticed the fanbase kicks every ball, and really reacts to everything happening on the field. Similar to what you'd see at a hockey game where the action dictates “Ohhs” and “Ahhs.” When Tosaint Ricketts scored that second goal in extra time against Montreal, it was absolutely insane. Brad Friedel and I were swaying back and forth. Add 1,500 fans from Seattle, maybe some snow in the air, and this will be tremendous.
MiB: The game is not just a culmination of the season for the league, but also for your broadcast team at FOX. As someone who’s hopscotched North America, covering games for nine gruelling months, how do you experience the end of the season? And, more importantly, where are you going to dinner with the FOX crew post-game? JS: I don't mean this in a cliche way, but since I was a little kid in middle school and the league launched in '96, this has quite literally been a dream of mine. To call an MLS Cup. That's what I hope to focus on: enjoying the moment, enjoying the opportunity. As for dinner, we’ll see because we're in different hotels than we normally are. We are creatures of habit on the road. We go to the same restaurants near our hotel. So I’m not sure where we’ll go this time. We've got a small army coming, so it depends on where Wynalda wants to go. But what I guarantee you is this: Alexi and Rob will order oysters and tons of them. I will order some sort of a hamburger and I will drink a lot of beer. And it will be classic Molson Canadian or Labatt Blue. It'll be fun for those of us who have been on this long, sometimes not very glamorous, slog throughout the MLS season and doing all of these broadcasts. We're so proud of our work. Being able to cap it off in this big way is incredibly exciting. I'm looking forward to doing that scene at end of “Ocean's 11” where we all sort of nod and go our separate ways for a few months.