Sustainable power: Why the Sounders have a better shot at a dynasty than Toronto FC
Toronto FC will have the chance to cap off the most dominant season in Major League Soccer history on Saturday, but it may have the more difficult path to cementing itself as an MLS dynasty.
An MLS Cup win would complete Toronto’s legacy as perhaps the greatest team in league history. In order to put together the best regular season in MLS history, the Reds had to run the gauntlet in a conference that included some of the strongest teams in the league. Toronto finished in front of New York City FC, Atlanta United, the New York Red Bulls, the Chicago Fire and the Columbus Crew – all but one of whom accumulated more points than every team in the Western Conference.
Now, in order to cement its legacy as the greatest team in league history, Toronto will have to best a Seattle Sounders team looking to repeat as league champions. If the Reds pull it off, there will be no doubting the difficulty of the accomplishment, which would also complete the league’s first-ever treble.
No matter what, the road will likely be just as difficult in 2018. That’s where the forecast differs for these two teams.
The balance of power shifting to the East in 2017 wasn’t a coincidence. The entry of two high-spending ownership groups over the past three seasons, NYCFC and Atlanta United, tilted the scales. Early indications are that those teams will be even more ambitious in 2018. Toronto will have to survive them again next season.
Meanwhile, Seattle will return to a Western Conference in which it is undoubtedly the top dog in terms of overall spending – both on the first-team roster and in the infrastructure, including USL, academy and scouting. Unless that changes, Seattle has a path to becoming the out-and-out favorite in the West for the foreseeable future.
There are challengers capable of altering that, however. Ironically, those scales could again tilt due to expansion.
LAFC enters the league in 2018 and has the financial strength to replicate Atlanta United’s strong expansion season. Like Atlanta, LAFC also has one of the most accomplished coaches in the league.
The LA Galaxy was abysmal last season, but the typically higher-spending team has the chance to hit the reset button and build a better roster beyond its three Designated Players. The Portland Timbers lead the next tier of spenders and will always be around to challenge, and reports indicate Sporting Kansas City is ready to at least move into that Timbers tier of spenders. FC Dallas has proved it is an outlier good enough to make noise.
If anything is going to truly challenge Seattle’s dominance at the top of the Western Conference, however, it is the two teams in LA with the financial wherewithal to match Seattle’s spending – just as Atlanta and NYCFC did with Toronto in 2017. While NYCFC and Atlanta fell short of knocking Toronto out of the playoffs – and in fact, it was lower-spending Columbus that came closest – over time, those teams will be the most consistent challengers to Toronto’s dominance in the East.
MLS is a league that is changing rapidly. The haves and the have-nots and the wills and the will-nots are the new fault lines. And while lower-spending teams will be able to compete for small windows – like Columbus this season and Colorado in 2016 – it will be increasingly difficult to stretch that success out across multiple seasons. Expansion looks more likely to bolster the East rather than the West, with billionaire ownership groups in Nashville and Detroit among the candidates.
If Seattle’s total spending continues to outpace everyone in the West, it will endure as the team to beat in the West over the long haul.
Two consecutive MLS Cup appearances and the possibility of back-to-back titles prove the Sounders have already started to distance themselves from the pack. The question now becomes how the LA teams and the other contenders can catch up.