The 2016 MLS Cup marquee barely has room for all of the names that deserve a place of prominence on it. Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders bring a wealth of talent to the game, thanks in large part to the willingness of their respective owners to spend big money in the quest for a title.
But the names aren't on the metaphorical marquee just because they're highly paid. These two teams have stars who have delivered, both in the regular season and throughout the playoffs. Nearly every player who draws extra attention because of his paycheck, pedigree or talent deserves to be highlighted heading into MLS Cup (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET).
It won't all be on the stars, however. The trick of reaching Major League Soccer's showpiece match is made possible through the contributions of players who can count just one comma in their salaries.
On the eve of the biggest game of the year and with the top trophy in soccer in the U.S. and Canada on the line, here are the three players apiece from Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders who will make the difference in deciding whose display case that trophy will grace.
Altidore gets the top billing for Toronto for good reason; the United States international practically carried the Reds through the conference final series with the Montreal Impact, scoring two goals and providing an assist while also contributing stellar passing and hold-up play from his center-forward position. Because so much of what TFC has done in these playoffs has flowed from the form of Altidore, he is the first choice when it comes to players who will have a major part to play in MLS Cup.
Giovinco wasn't quite his imperious self in the Eastern Conference final against the Impact, but that doesn't mean the Sounders can discount his ability to take over the game at BMO Field. Cramps limited Giovinco in the second leg against Montreal, but coach Greg Vanney expects to have the 2015 MVP on the field for the final. Giovinco's ability to create chances for himself is remarkable, and it will be interesting to see how Seattle deals with his propensity to range across the field in search of the ball and space.
Yes, Toronto has Michael Bradley in the middle of the field, and there are other names (Will Johnson, Armando Cooper, Jonathan Osorio) who could conceivably play big roles. But one of the reasons the Reds have reached MLS Cup in 2016 is the steady defensive leadership of Moor. The 11-year MLS veteran is the marshal of Toronto's three-man defensive system and will need to be on top of his game to help neutralize the Sounders' numerous attacking threats.
Of course, Morris is top of the pile. The rookie sensation put the cap on the Sounders' Western Conference title with a well-taken goal on the road at the Colorado Rapids, proving he's not too green to handle the moment. The 22-year-old's combination of speed and intelligence has helped him evolve into one of the league's more dangerous strikers. Far from a finished product, he has the type of working rapport with his teammates that means they're likely to find him a handful of times in the game with a good look on goal.
The Sounders' late-season acquisition helped spark their turnaround and has continued to be a thorn in the side of every team they've faced in the 2016 playoffs. Lodeiro does so many things well that it's difficult to keep track of him for more than small stretches at a time. That puts pressure on defenders to make the difficult choice to either focus on Lodeiro and risk space opening up for his teammates, or hone in on other Sounders and risk the Uruguayan doing the damage himself. All of the players on this list will play a part in the outcome, but Lodeiro is the Sounders' best bet to decide the game on his own.
Per coach Brian Schmetzer, Alonso is fit and ready to man his defensive midfield position on Saturday night. That's huge news for the Sounders, because Alonso is steady as a rock working as both a shield for the Seattle back line and a mover of the ball from back to front. His passing helps the Sounders hold possession and pressure the opponent even when the team's aim is to go quickly without a long series of passes. The Cuban is the unsung hero of the Sounders' second half, and it's only right to put him in a place of prominence as a player who will have a significant role to play in the match for MLS supremacy.