By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - Either Toronto FC or Seattle Sounders, both hailed as model franchises when they entered the league, will finally deliver on the success predicted for them when Major League Soccer crowns a new champion on Saturday.
With fan bases many European clubs would envy and deep-pocketed ownership, Toronto and Seattle entered the league to massive hype and fanfare but fell short of expectations until this season as both secured their first MLS Cup berth.
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The Sounders, who averaged crowds of over 42,000 a game this year, have been the MLS 'nearly men' since their debut in 2009 as they qualified for the playoffs each season but were never able to reach the summit.
While Seattle teased fans, Toronto tested their supporters' loyalty every step of the way.
With every game of Toronto's inaugural season in 2007 sold out, MLS Commissioner Don Garber labeled the franchise's launch as one of the most successful in pro sports and a blueprint for future expansion teams.
But the marketing magic was nowhere to be seen on the field as Toronto muddled through eight losing seasons under eight head coaches with the low ebb coming from 2011-2013, a morbid stretch where the club failed to win more than six games in a season.
"Losing can become as much a habit as winning and for me that was one of the biggest challenges because I could feel that within the club," said Toronto coach Greg Vanney. "We still couldn't get out of our own way and believe enough in what we were doing to be able to shift the tide.
"Quite honestly as a club we have done an amazing job to be able to shift that paradigm in just a couple of years."
Seattle's consistency has been built around well-drilled, well-rounded rosters and the biggest home crowds in MLS.
Toronto's approach has been far more reactionary.
TFC have tried to spend their way out of trouble by bringing in big-name coaches and designated players.
Juergen Klinsmann was hired as a consultant to find the right coach and headhunted Dutchman Aron Winter whose total football approach turned into a disaster.
England striker Jermain Defoe was handed the savior's mantle when he was introduced to great fanfare in 2014. That same day U.S. national team captain and midfielder Michael Bradley joined the club in a transfer from AS Roma.
But Defoe's tour of duty in Canada was short-lived, TFC sending him back to Premier League side Sunderland a year later in deal that brought U.S. striker Jozy Altidore to Toronto.
While the Defoe experiment failed it brought the foundation to a TFC rebuild that took shape with the signing of dynamic young Italian forward Sebastian Giovinco, who last season earned MLS most valuable player honours.
The three designated players have powered Toronto's a torrid run to the final with the diminutive Giovinco, known as the 'Atomic Ant,' contributing four goals and four assists while Altidore has found the back of the net in five consecutive playoff contests.
"Your three DPs have to complement each other, they have to be the core of your team and they have to be your best players," Vanney said ahead of Saturday's game in Toronto. "The first step for us was getting guys who are complementary to each other.
"You can spend a lot of money on guys, and we've all seen it around the league, who come and they don't have the impact you want for various reasons whether it is personality or performance.
"It's building around them and finding the right pieces to complement them in order to structure a team that works together."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)