TFC recovers from abysmal start to reach third MLS Cup Final

Toronto FC players react during the trophy presentation after defeating Atlanta United 2-1 in their MLS Eastern Conference final. (John Bazemore/AP)

Get ready for the rubber match.

For a third time in four years, the MLS Cup Final will feature the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC after the Reds defeated Atlanta United 2-1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the Eastern Conference final on Wednesday.

In reaching the final, TFC defeated the East’s top-two seeds on the road – without Jozy Altidore or Omar Gonzalez – and will now travel to Seattle in an attempt to win its second MLS Cup.

Here are three takeaways from a hectic match.

TFC gets carved open, then stitches up the wound

If the opening 10 minutes were any indication of what was to come, TFC fans would’ve been covering their eyes for the following 80.

Despite midfielder Michael Bradley and defender Laurent Ciman lacking pace to keep up with Atlanta’s dynamic attack, TFC deployed a high line to utilize the offside trap. Coupled with the midfield losing its shape, it was a fatal combination.

Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez won a subsequent penalty shortly after that opening goal thanks to the high line of TFC and Atlanta’s quick, direct passes over the top. But then goalkeeper Quentin Westberg saved Josef Martinez’s attempt and the momentum shifted.

Nicolas Benezet scored a beautiful curler from outside the box to equalize for TFC, then the Reds moved into a deep, compact shape that frustrated Atlanta for the remainder of the game.

Other than Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco roaming across the pitch, the shape remained disciplined. The full-backs were more conservative to protect the flanks, as Atlanta loves to send low, whipped crosses into the box for Josef Martinez. The compact midfield helped shield the back line as well.

TFC’s average positioning in the first half. (via SofaScore)

That shape became narrower after head coach Greg Vanney added Nick DeLeon, the scorer of the winning goal, and Richie Laryea into the game and suffocated Atlanta even more.

TFC’s average positioning after the substitutions. (via SofaScore)

The strategy paid off as Atlanta was held to just 10 shots (including Martinez’s penalty) before the 80th minute, when the hosts ramped up the pressure in search of an equalizer. As mentioned before the game, United doesn’t play a lot of progressive passes in any area of the pitch, so the more compact the opponent is, the tougher it is for Atlanta to break through.

Even when the Five Stripes had clear-cut chances, Ciman or Chris Mavinga was there to close down Martinez in the box and force his attempts wide.

Vanney the tinkerer

Vanney felt confident in sticking with the starting 11 that got through the opening two playoff games. Clearly he was justified.

Not starting Gonzalez next to Mavinga at centre-back was the riskiest choice. Ciman isn’t blessed with great speed but he performed well after a rough start. Plus, who knows how Gonzalez’s hamstring would have fared on the turf at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

However, as stingy as Toronto’s defence was for the final 35 minutes of the first half, it was being harried by Atlanta’s counter-pressing in TFC’s defensive third. Michael Bradley was turning over the ball, he had little support from the other midfielders and they were outnumbered in certain areas of the pitch.

Then Vanney reacted by throwing on DeLeon early in the second half to make up those numbers. They went to a 4-4-2 diamond in theory, although it was a 5-4-1 off the ball with Bradley dropping into the back four on occasion.

After the DeLeon substitution, Atlanta generated five shots – one on target – and just two in the box.

Not to mention, DeLeon scored the goal of the night.

Of course, whenever a team decides to play compact defensively and exploit the opponent on the counter, clinical finishing is required.

The Reds only attempted four shots. The expected goals (xG) of Benezet’s shot was one of the lowest recorded totals in these playoffs. DeLeon’s wasn’t much higher.

This is yet another lesson of why it’s important for a team in Atlanta’s position to take advantage.

Best of three

There will be a third final involving Seattle and Toronto. The Sounders won the first meeting in 2016 at BMO Field in a penalty shootout. TFC avenged that loss the following year to lift its first MLS Cup.

Now we get the rubber match. This time, in Seattle.

Neither side was favoured to progress to this final. The Sounders defeated a record-setting LAFC side 3-1 at Banc of California Stadium, where it had only lost once all season before Tuesday night. TFC had to go into New York City and Atlanta following an extra-time victory over D.C. United in the opening round.

It just goes to show that even in an ever-changing MLS landscape, the more it stays the same.

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