Parity supposedly rules MLS, yet for the third time in four years, the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC will square off in the MLS Cup final.
Unlike the previous two meetings, though, the Sounders will welcome TFC to CenturyLink Field. This presents some intriguing tactical questions, which we will dissect in detail to get you set for Sunday’s big match.
How Toronto FC could line up
With Jozy Altidore’s availability for Sunday looking bleak and Omar Gonzalez lacking match fitness, Toronto coach Greg Vanney might stick with the 11 that got him to the dance.
How the Seattle Sounders could line up
There shouldn’t be too many surprises in coach Brian Schmetzer’s 11. The one potential change might be Roman Torres over Xavier Arreaga at centre back. But Arreaga is more mobile than Torres, which is beneficial against TFC’s pacy forwards.
Who will control the proceedings?
This is the burning question before Sunday’s game.
Both sides progressed to the MLS Cup final by grinding out results in the previous round on the road. Schmetzer has a propensity to cede the initiative in certain marquee matchups, but the Sounders are at home. There will be an impetus to take the game to Toronto.
Still, it shouldn’t dramatically change the Sounders’ tactics. They will be compact off the ball and attempt to match TFC’s intensity in the midfield.
How Toronto FC could approach the game
Don’t be surprised if Vanney deploys his side to be more cautious. In other words, to not press so aggressively higher up the field.
That’s because Seattle’s firepower is clearly a threat. Raul Ruidiaz has scored three goals in as many playoff games this year, including a brace in the 3-1 victory over LAFC. Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris have contributed to the Sounders’ offensive output during the post-season, too.
Restricting that danger has to be a priority for TFC. Seattle registered 426 shots during the regular season – the sixth lowest tally in MLS – and just 4.9 attempts per 90 minutes from outside the box. All the more reason for TFC to stay compact and prevent the ball from entering the penalty area.
TFC was successful in the opening two playoff rounds with the high press. But since the Reds will play on another wide pitch, a more conservative approach off the ball could avoid a repeat of the opening 10 minutes from the conference final in Atlanta.
While Toronto averaged more possession than Seattle this season, per WhoScored.com, TFC is comfortable to let teams build from the back, as evidenced by the graphic below.
As for the attack, FC Dallas actually provided a decent blueprint from the first round of the playoffs. The graphic above shows us that the Sounders allow a high success rate of open-play passes in their defensive third. Dallas pounced on this by utilizing low, whipped crosses. Seattle has tall, commanding defenders so keeping the ball low is awkward to deal with in the box.
Dallas also scored via two corners and exploited the Sounders in transition off defensive set pieces, something TFC could execute, too.
Altidore likely missing out on a start means there will be a reliance on TFC’s front three of Alejandro Pozuelo, Tsubasa Endoh and Nicolas Benezet. It’s worked so far in the playoffs but whether Toronto can rely on outputs like the Atlanta United game when it posted 0.16 expected goals off four shots, is unknown.
How Seattle could approach the game
In an ironic role reversal from the last two finals, the Sounders have the advantage in attack.
Ruidiaz’s clinical finishing is the one major change from years past. The Peruvian is among the leaders in goals per 96 minutes (the average length of an MLS game) and xG per 96 minutes, according to data from American Soccer Analysis. That ice-cold composure and deadly finishing was on full display in the conference final.
Plus, when supported by Lodeiro, one of MLS’s top playmakers, it’s always easier to find scoring opportunities.
In that win over LAFC, left back Brad Smith and winger Jordan Morris nullified Tristan Blackmon and Diego Rossi, two of the team’s main attacking outlets. This left Carlos Vela isolated and the Los Angeles attack was toothless.
To ensure the midfield was solidified, Ruidiaz and Lodeiro tracked back to help close down LAFC’s midfielders.
Ruidiaz often collected the ball deep in his own half before bombing forward to launch a counter-attack. TFC should attempt to commit tactical fouls to break Seattle’s rhythm and prevent the Sounders from catching the Reds out of their shape.
Gustav Svensson and Cristian Roldan will be facing Michael Bradley, Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio, not to mention Alejandro Pozuelo when he drops deep. Svensson and Roldan will need Ruidiaz’s and Lodeiro’s support again to provide a numerical advantage in the centre of the pitch.
This also means a Sounder can pressure Bradley when he’s on the ball. As stated before the Eastern Conference final, the TFC captain is crucial to the team’s buildup and struggles when he’s harried by the opposition.
Sunday’s final should be cagey. That is when moments of individual quality clinch games. Having Ruidiaz gives the Sounders that advantage, but the same could’ve been said about Josef Martinez for Atlanta when it faced TFC.