What started as a promising afternoon became a nightmare for Toronto FC, who succumbed to a 3-1 defeat at the hands of the Seattle Sounders in Sunday’s MLS Cup final.
The game was scoreless at halftime, but a deflected strike from Kelvin Leerdam opened the scoring before Victor Rodriguez and Raul Ruidiaz sealed a second MLS Cup title for Seattle. Jozy Altidore earned a late consolation for TFC.
Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s final.
Caginess rules the MLS Cup final
Most teams opt for a cautious approach in finals, so it was no surprise that both sides ensured they were compact off the ball and prevented any space from being exploited behind them.
When finals are hotly contested, a moment of luck or individual quality often makes the difference. That’s what transpired on Seattle’s winner via Leerdam.
Once the Sounders seized the advantage, they continued to sit deep, protect the flanks and stay compact centrally. This was the Sounders’ approach throughout the game, but they had even less of a reason to play proactively after the goal.
TFC had the sizzle, but no steak
Toronto FC deserves immense credit for reaching the MLS Cup final. However, when playing in one-off knockout games without a recognized striker, sometimes a bit of luck and clinical finishing is needed to progress.
Playing with a free-roaming attacking trio has its benefits. That fluidity with the forwards’ off-the-ball movement can unsettle a defence, as was seen in the opening minutes. But the Sounders’ defenders stayed disciplined with their positioning.
This is where having Altidore from the start would have benefitted Toronto. His ability to make runs off the shoulder of a defender and win aerial duels against the towering Roman Torres and Kim Kee-hee adds an extra threat. He’s also a quality finisher.
With Pozuelo dropping incredibly deep, wingers Nicolas Benezet and Tsubasa Endoh made those runs into the box. Benezet had a couple of shots due to Seattle’s neglect in marking their right flank, but goalkeeper Stefan Frei made two solid stops to keep the game scoreless.
But Seattle having a prolific No. 9 like Ruidiaz and impact substitutes like Rodriguez was the difference, as it would be in most cagey contests.
In hindsight, having Altidore enter after halftime – if he was capable of logging 45 minutes – would’ve behooved TFC especially with how well they began the second half.
Schmetzer’s tweaks change the match
Ultimately, it was the second-half tactical changes from Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer that clinched the team’s second MLS Cup.
Firstly, Joevin Jones and Jordan Morris swapped wings. With Benezet often alone in space in the final third, Schmetzer may have preferred Morris’ work rate on the right flank to combat the Frenchman, who was arguably Toronto’s greatest attacking threat.
Once Morris moved to the right, Benezet was nullified.
The subsequent inclusion of Rodriguez added more directness to the Sounders attack. Lodeiro and Ruidiaz were often isolated so the Spaniard’s addition was welcomed, and he settled the nerves of the crowd with a wonderful finish.
Rodriguez’s time in Seattle has been hampered by injuries but when he has played, it’s clear that he’s impactful.
That quality up front is what changed the game for the Sounders, and it’s an area that TFC will have to improve in the off-season if they want to avoid this same situation in 2020.