Toronto FC reaching its first MLS Cup final is a huge landmark and this would be the ideal manner to claim the club’s first piece of silverware. In terms of overall depth and home advantage, TFC are genuine favourites, but this is a battle between an in-form attack, and the best defensive unit in the playoffs.
TFC’s defensive issues were exploited on the counter-attack against the Montreal Impact, and coincidentally Seattle offers a similar threat with slight variations. The Reds are expected to dominate possession in front of their home crowd and onus will be on Seattle to remain compact and resolute.
The Sounders proved they’re capable of the aforementioned traits in their second leg victory at Colorado by defending narrow around the penalty area – the approach Montreal adopted against Greg Vanney’s men. TFC, however, rely on width from wing-backs Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour, whom will push forward to help create space around the box.
However, the Seattle midfield consists of the dynamism Mauro Biello’s men lacked in central areas, whilst still maintaining a solid base ahead of the back four. Therefore, Osvaldo Alonso’s fitness is a key talking point ahead of kick off.
The Sounders will play in a hybrid of a 4-2-3-1 /4-3-3, deploying a midfielder slightly ahead of the double-pivot, but Alonso’s presence enables Cristian Roldan and Erik Friberg the freedom to drive forward and join the attack. Alonso’s passing range is also an outlet utilized to build attacks from deep areas and Vanney will need to instruct Altidore or a member of his midfield trio to limit the Cuban’s threat.
Although Jonathan Osorio’s guile is an asset to the TFC midfield, Vanney will likely name an unchanged midfield trio. Will Johnson’s experience and grit in midfield ensures Michael Bradley isn’t overrun, whereas Armando Cooper’s ball-winning skills and tireless work-rate has helped the Reds win midfield battles throughout the second half of the season.
Another interesting aspect of the match takes place in wide areas. Seattle’s full-backs, specifically, Joevin Jones – Tyrone Mears gets forward but his influence in the final third is scarce – who’s recorded three assists in this year’s post-season offers an additional source of creativity. But Sounders coach, Brian Schmetzer may encourage his full-backs to remain deep like they did in Colorado to prevent Giovinco and Altidore from drifting into the channels in transition.
Still, TFC’s defence remains their weak point, and Seattle’s attack contains various threats. Jordan Morris’ pace and willingness to break beyond the defence could trouble Beitashour and Eriq Zavaleta. Nelson Valdez is a penalty box poacher, but his ability to link play with the midfield and runners beyond the opposition’s defence means the Reds can’t afford the Paraguayan time to receive the ball.
Ultimately, Lodeiro is the key man behind Seattle’s success during the second half of the season. Capable of playing behind Valdez or off the right flank – Schmetzer should and probably will opt for the latter – Nicolas Lodeiro drifts across the pitch finding space to receive the ball and push his teammates forward.
Besides direct pacy dribbling, in many ways Lodeiro is similar to Ignacio Piatti, and equally completes his defensive work diligently. If Lodeiro drifts laterally and is unable to find pace between the lines, the Sounders creator is willing to move into midfield to build passing moves. This is one of the few reasons why Vanney will persist with Johnson in midfield: solely with the aim to help Bradley contain Lodeiro’s touches on the ball within the TFC half.
Nevertheless, despite Seattle’s competent attack and well-rounded, dynamic midfield, the key to the away side’s success hinges on their ability to contain Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. Altidore’s varied movement – coming short and drifting beyond the defence – has proved a nuisance to opposing defenders, but more importantly the American’s physical advantage against the Sounders back-line could be decisive.
Elsewhere, Giovinco is due for a big game, but attempting to dominate in a congested area isn’t the solution here. Apart from their renowned transitional attacks, Giovinco may be instructed to drift towards the left to create overloads and ensure Mears doesn’t push forward to provide width when Lodeiro drifts centrally in search of possession.
Here, the key for TFC is patience and quickly switching the play out into wide areas to stretch the Sounders back-line. But unlike their tie with Montreal, a level of caution must be instilled to cope with Morris’ pace and Lodeiro’s ability to pick out the correct pass from practically any area on the pitch.
Several match-winners off the bench, and countless goal-scoring threats in the final third suggests the Reds should triumph on home soil, but Vanney’s tactical dexterity has equally been pivotal, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the TFC manager was the pivotal factor once again. The Sounders possess the personnel capable of playing on the counter, and given TFC’s issues against Montreal, can the Reds rectify the defensive errors made in the conference final?