Miracle or mind game? Altidore's injury status vital in buildup to MLS Cup

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There's always a natural bit of gamesmanship when it comes to a cup final. It comes with the territory when it's all on the line. It's one match that determines a trophy, a season, a legacy. It's only natural to find every advantage possible and, if needed, play a little dirty to get it.

MLS Cup doesn't kick off until Sunday afternoon, and it'll feature two teams who know each other very, very well. Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders have done this dance twice in the last three seasons, with each coming out on top on one occasion.

There aren't too many surprises between these two but, even so, the leadup to this year's match has begun with some good old mind games.

Ahead of their clash at CenturyLink Field, talk has centered around Jozy Altidore. The forward, a key piece of Toronto FC's squad by any measure, has yet to feature in the playoffs so far due to a strained quad. Toronto has, obviously, managed without him, taking down D.C. United, New York City FC and Atlanta United, but there's little doubt that a TFC with Altidore is much better than one without.

However, the man himself said it would take a "miracle" for him to feature in Sunday's season-closer, a match that would be his first since October 6. His coach, Greg Vanney, was also non-committal, saying that he believed in miracles, while adding that the forward would keep working hard.

Vanney's counterpart, Brian Schmetzer, isn't buying it.

“[It’s] not mind games because Greg [Vanney] is a good guy, I don’t think he plays mind games," Schmetzer said on Wednesday. "But look, whether Jozy plays or not, we’ll be prepared. I expect — again, it’s the last game, this is it, it’s the last game of the year — I expect him to be involved in some way.”

Vanney also spoke on Altidore's condition after the forward trained on his own on Wednesday.

“He’s doing good,” Vanney said. "He hasn’t trained with the group specifically, but physically he’s doing good. We really won’t know anything until we actually put him in the middle of a training session and see where he’s at. But in terms of, we’re getting him to where we want, to see what that looks like.”

He added: “Hopefully miracles can come true, as he said. But we know he’s putting in a lot of work and the guys around him are putting in a lot of work. So I know it will take a lot to keep him out of the team on the weekend, in the biggest game of the year."

That gives the Sounders two vastly different scenarios to prepare for: one with Altidore and one without.

We've seen the latter scenario all through these playoffs and, by and large, it has worked out pretty well. In that scenario, Toronto FC has deployed offseason signing Alejandro Pozuelo as a false nine, with Tsubasa Endoh and Nicolas Benezet on either side. Pozuelo has, so far, thrived in the role, assisting two goals while scoring two of his own. 

Pozuelo Toronto FC

It's a different role than what we've seen from Pozuelo this season. The Spanish midfielder was tabbed as a replacement for Sebastian Giovinco - big boots to fill despite Giovinco's diminutive stature. The Italian striker is undoubtedly the best player in TFC history and one of the best in league history, as Giovinco provided 116 goals and 72 assists across 125 MLS matches including the postseason. He helped guide them to MLS Cup in 2016 and win it a year later. He's a legend.

Pozuelo, though, has shown that the decision to move on from Giovinco was not a mistake and that the thought of a rebuild was a bit premature. The Spanish midfielder, who has now been playing for 18 consecutive months since making the move to MLS from Belgian side Genk, provided 12 goals and added 12 assists in 30 games during the regular season.

The Sounders, meanwhile, are prepared for that scenario given the one they just experienced. Having taken down Los Angeles FC in the last round, the Sounders went against the league's MVP in Carlos Vela, a player that also tends to play as a false nine.

“They’re a little different players,” Schmetzer said. “Is Pozuelo going to play as that false No. 9, what does Carlos do, where are the heat maps of both players? They are pretty similar.

“I think that the team Toronto vs. the team LAFC poses different challenges so we’ve kind of looked at it from a team perspective. Later in the week, we’ll make sure that the individual players get enough film on Pozuelo, his movements, his style and we’ll make some adjustments.”

And then there's the scenario where Altidore does play, one which depends on just how healthy he is. Is Altidore anywhere close to 100 per cent and, if he isn't, could he be deployed as a decoy?

It's hard to imagine the latter occurring. We've seen it backfire before, with Atletico Madrid's decision to start Diego Costa in the 2014 semifinal one notable occurrence. You can't waste a starting spot on a player that isn't 100% fit, especially in a match that could easily end up going 120 minutes.

But if Altidore is ready to go, that gives TFC a vastly different look. Altidore's hold-up play is obviously vastly superior to Pozuelo's, and it gives TFC's other attackers a different set of gaps to run through. But Altidore isn't just a target man. Despite appearing only 22 times, Altidore fired 11 goals, while providing seven assists this season, a very solid haul.

Without Altidore in the lineup, TFC went 4-4-4. With him, they were 9-6-7. They're a more balanced team with Altidore in the lineup, even if they have learned to manage without him this season.

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The U.S. men's national team forward has had an unlucky habit of missing big games. With the national team, Altidore has missed vital matches, including virtually all of the 2014 World Cup. Repeated hamstring issues have long limited him for club and country. For every good spell, it seems there's been one of misfortune just behind it.

Will Sunday's MLS Cup be the latest missed opportunity or will a "miracle" occur?

It's a question that could determine who leaves CenturyLink Field with an MLS Cup in hand, but a question that we will not be able to answer until Sunday, even if the debate and discussion will continue in the days to come.