MLS Cup final: TFC's Vazquez, Seattle's Dempsey new pieces to rematch
Both were absent from last year's championship game
For a second straight season, Toronto FC will take on the Seattle Sounders at BMO Field for the MLS Cup on Saturday afternoon (4 p.m. ET).
While the core of each club remain intact, there are some fresh faces who had no part in last year's game, but will play pivotal roles in the sequel.
What took place on that cold December 2016 night where Seattle defeated Toronto 5-4 on penalty kicks is all but history. TFC head coach Greg Vanney says it's been a while since he's watched the game and he plans to view it again in the coming days.
But Vanney insists there isn't much he can take from it besides reigniting the raw, competitive emotions that comes with a championship game.
"I'll look at a few things tactically, but we're just two different teams and we've had a whole year behind us to learn, grow, and evolve as teams," Vanney says.
Perhaps the most notable absentee from a year ago was American international Clint Dempsey, who missed the entire 2016 post-season with an irregular heartbeat.
The Sounders' forward gave the club another dimension to its offence, leading the team this season in goals (12) while adding five assists in 29 games played.
The 34-year-old has another three goals in as many post-season games this year.
"Clint is back into the mix…[he] is always a bit of an X factor. His ability to sniff out a situation and technically be able to pull [it all together]…you add that to [midfielder Nicolás] Lodeiro and they've been able to get some minutes together," Vanney says.
Dempsey's presence on the pitch alone commands attention and teams must be weary of him at all times.
"Clint's been in all the big matches. He's experienced a lot in his career and he has tons of skill and talent to go with it. He can hurt you in any moment," says TFC defender Justin Morrow.
Toronto right wingback Steven Beitashour echoed his teammates' statement, and has all the respect for the United States' joint all-time goal scoring leader.
"You just look at his career — he's [been] a star player in this league and in other leagues. You definitely have to keep an eye out for him from minute one to 90. He's a good player and you want to limit his chances," Beitashour says.
While Dempsey has been a game changer for the Sounders, TFC added another with the off-season acquisition of attacking midfielder Victor Vazquez.
The Spaniard has been the playmaker that TFC longed for throughout its existence, and his excellent ball delivery and vision, combined with his knowledge of the game has made the job of forwards Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco much easier.
The former Barcelona youth system product was second in the MLS with 16 assists during the regular season and was named to the league's Best XI, which recognizes the top players at each position.
Vanney lauds Vazquez for his ability to come into a new league and have an instant impact.
He knows just how rare it is to see a player have such a seamless transition.
"He was a great addition to our group. He was the piece that we really needed to take another big step forward," Vanney says.
Toronto scored 23 more goals this season (74) to lead the MLS, including eight from Morrow, the runner-up for MLS defender of the year.
Vazquez has unquestionably helped TFC transform into an offensive juggernaut, but another off-season move by general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has played a vital role.
Defender Chris Mavinga has settled in nicely alongside Morrow on the back-line, allowing Morrow to be more aggressive on the offensive end while providing some insurance on the defensive side should the opposition counter.
"Chris has been a big part of my success and the team's success. He gives me that ability to go forward without worry. He's always behind me making plays and he's been a big help," Morrow says.
Mavinga was a promising prospect in the youth systems of Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool, but has bounced around several clubs.
He appears to have found and provided some stability for TFC.
After agreeing to a three-year contract last January, the 26-year-old started 24 games and was part of a defensive unit that conceded the second lowest number of goals (37) this season.
"We've played all year with him either with three men back or two centre backs. He's been in some top leagues and teams, and he's excelled at all the places that he's gone, including here," Beitashour says.
"In order for us to be successful, everyone will have to have another top performance and he's been a big part of that. Hopefully we get another from him come Saturday."