Let's call it what it is: MLS Cup has been cruel to Toronto FC

Michael Bradley and Toronto FC have had a ridiculously hard time solving Seattle in MLS Cup finals. (Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports)

SEATTLE — You-know-who said it. You know what he said.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic didn’t factor into Sunday’s MLS Cup final whatsoever. But his comments on how the league determines a champion – “I think the system is s***” – rang loud back in August.

They ring even louder now thanks to Toronto FC.

Three times, Toronto has met the Seattle Sounders with a championship on the line. Three times, Toronto has a strong claim to being the better side.

One time, they hoisted the trophy. That’s it.

“That’s how it goes,” TFC captain Michael Bradley said. “Nobody’s feeling sorry for themselves. It’s frustrating. ... On these days, things hang in the balance, and you need a little bit of quality, skill, a break, a little bit of luck. By and large, that’s what opens these games up.”

By and large, that’s not what Toronto has gotten.

Sunday’s 3-1 scoreline was unflattering of the bravery the Reds displayed on the road for the third time in as many games this postseason. They’d already gone to Eastern Conference top seed New York City FC and won. They did the same against defending MLS champion Atlanta United in the conference final.

With 69,274 fans stuffed into CenturyLink Field, almost all of them rooting vociferously for the Sounders, Toronto was the aggressor for the first half and beyond. Their exchanges were crisp, their ideas clever, their lack of a goal verging on obnoxious.

There wasn’t one chance that necessarily stood out as unfortunate, just the entire run of play.

“It’s frustrating, because I thought we were fluid,” TFC coach Greg Vanney said. “I thought generally we had good organization. I thought they didn’t have a great answer for some of our movement and some of the ball circulation.”

Even the introduction of Jozy Altidore (left) couldn't stop Toronto FC from falling in MLS Cup for the second time in three finals against the Sounders. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

By the time Seattle’s goal arrived in the 57th minute, officially credited to Kelvin Leerdam but thoroughly attributable to TFC defender Justin Morrow’s deflection, the game changed completely.

Toronto broke it open. They just did it against themselves.

“I thought it was a gut punch, just in terms of how we played,” said striker Jozy Altidore, who battled back from injury to come on as a substitute. “We dominated the game. It’s shades of 2016 a bit.”

What happened in 2016? Oh nothing, just Toronto FC bossing the run of play with zilch to show for it, thanks to Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei’s heroics and the wrong spin of a penalty shootout wheel.

A year later, when the Reds returned to MLS Cup with arguably the best team in league history, they dominated the Sounders again but didn’t score until Altidore’s 67th-minute strike, and didn’t feel truly comfortable until an insurance goal in stoppage time.

Then came Sunday. Three games. Well over 300 minutes of play. Nearly 500 more passes attempted, and still a higher percentage of passes completed. An aggregate of nearly 60 percent possession. Toronto even registered nearly as many shots on goal (23) and Seattle registered shots period (24).

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“It doesn’t matter,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “You put the ball in the back of the net, you’re dangerous in attack, and that’s how championships are won.”

He’s right. That’s how soccer works sometimes. The most important statistic is MLS championships, and that reads Sounders 2, Toronto FC 1.

There’s an art form to winning when you don’t have as much of the ball, when you live on the back foot. When, to borrow Zlatan’s terminology, the “s***” system works in your favor.

“They’re a team that knows how to counter,” Altidore said. “They know how to absorb pressure, create. They’ve been doing it a number of years. Credit to them, they did it again to us tonight. It’s a tough pill to swallow.”

This run for Toronto FC will do nothing to quiet one of the sport’s signature debates in America. No, these Reds did not win the Supporters’ Shield, but their superiority over vast stretches still goes unrewarded, much like how the regular season champion isn’t just hot at the right time, but all the time.

Take nothing away from the Sounders. Toronto FC isn’t.

Cruelly for them, that’s not all they’re leaving Seattle without.

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