TORONTO – Greg Vanney wants to make sure that all the bases are covered.
That’s why the Toronto FC coach plans to dedicate a portion of this week’s training sessions to practising penalty kicks ahead of Saturday’s MLS Cup against the Seattle Sounders at BMO Field.
In last year’s final, TFC carried the bulk of play against Seattle in 120 minutes of regulation and extra time. But it was the Sounders, who didn’t register a single shot on net, who won via a penalty shootout to hoist the trophy on a frosty night in Toronto.
Led by Chad Marshall, a three-time MLS defender of the year, Seattle conceded only 39 goals during the 2017 regular season, good enough for the third-best defensive record in the league – Toronto ranked second, with 37 goals against.
The Sounders have maintained their strong defensive form in the playoffs, recording shutouts in each of their four games. In fact, Seattle has kept a clean sheet in its last six games dating back to the regular season, and hasn’t given up a goal in its previous six playoff matches, a streak of 647 consecutive minutes that dates back to last year’s second leg of the Western Conference final against the Colorado Rapids.
Toronto has kept it pretty tight at the back in the post-season, too. The Reds’ defence has been breached just three times in four games, and it posted clean sheets in both legs of the Eastern Conference final against the Columbus Crew. TFC is riding a 216-minute shutout streak ahead of Saturday’s final – they haven’t conceded since Bradley Wright-Phillips’ deflection in the New York Red Bulls’ 1-0 win in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal.
Considering the defensive prowess of both sides, Saturday’s championship game could easily go to a shootout again.
Vanney said it’s impossible to duplicate the pressure of taking penalties during training sessions, but that “it’s still worthwhile going through the exercise.”
“It’s the idea of guys getting up there and being clear in their mind in what they want, but it’s very different to hit penalty kicks on a training field with nothing on it than hitting a penalty kick in front of 40,000 people and millions on TV, and having been possibly on the field for 120 minutes,” Vanney explained.
“Having said that, you can work out some of your plan or your concept of what you want to do leading up to it, so that you have a clear mind, even though you might be tired when you get there when the time comes.”
If it does go to a shootout on Saturday, Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono and his Seattle counterpart Stefan Frei will take centre stage, looking to thwart the men they’ll face one-on-one from the penalty spot. Bono will do some studying this week.
“We’ll watch video before the game, and get a spread sheet with all the penalty history of some of their guys,” Bono said.
“You do your homework, but at the end of the day, if it comes down to penalties it’ll be a split-second decision that you have to make at a moment’s notice and you have to live with that decision.
It was a failed attempt by TFC defender Justin Morrow – his shot hit the crossbar – during the shootout in last year’s MLS Cup final that paved the way for Roman Torres to convert from the penalty spot and clinch the title for Seattle.
Morrow told Sportsnet this week that he has since moved on from that penalty miss after taking a bit of time to get over it.
“It took, probably, until right around New Year’s, which was when I started to get back into working out and training. I took some time off to go on vacation after MLS Cup and be with my family, but once I got back into the swing of things, I was past it,” Morrrow admitted.
If Saturday’s game goes to another penalty shootout, Vanney suspects Morrow wouldn’t hesitate to volunteer to take one.
“For the last year, after training now and again, he’ll stick around and start hitting penalties. I suspect, and hopefully it won’t get to that point, but if it does that Justin will be one of the guys who raises his hand. He has that kind of confidence and belief in himself.”
Toronto defender Drew Moor might also have to step up after taking a penalty and beating Frei with his attempt in last year’s final.
“I remember with about three minutes to go in overtime, I looked around the field and thought I might [have to take a penalty]. Greg came up to me and said, ‘Hey, are you ready to take a penalty,’ and I said, ‘Ask around a bit.’ He looked around and walked around for about 30 seconds, didn’t say a word to anybody and came up back to me and said, ‘Hey, do you want to take a penalty?’ So if I have to [again], I’ll plan on stepping up,” Moor stated.