TORONTO — The old cliché in soccer is that games are won and lost in midfield. The 2017 MLS Cup final proved that sentiment.
While Toronto FC won 2-0 over the Seattle Sounders at BMO Field, it was a far more convincing performance by TFC than the scoreline suggested on Saturday night. That was due in large part to the midfield, which delivered its best performance of the season in the biggest match in franchise history.
TFC coach Greg Vanney’s switch to a diamond midfield clearly worked. Vanney deployed that same tactic in the second half of the second leg of the Eastern Conference final versus the Columbus Crew. The system was also utilized in select matches over the past two seasons.
The decision came as a slight surprise, but Vanney had his reasons for moving from the 3-5-2 to the 4-4-2.
“We wanted to position guys into certain pockets that we thought would exist because they defend in what appears to be a flat 4-4-2 and so we knew there would be some spaces for us to utilize,” said Vanney in his post-match press conference. “They’re a great possession-oriented team with those numbers in the middle of the field. By having the diamond with four midfielders and the active forwards with us, we knew we could really crowd up that space and make it difficult for them which would isolate their outside backs on the wings.”
Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Marky Delgado and Victor Vazquez were stunning on the night. Whether they were tracking back, winning possession and launching through balls in to Jozy Altidore or Sebastian Giovinco, they put in a complete performance.
It was the defensive qualities that made the difference, though. The Sounders midfield struggled to find space and create chances. In fact, Seattle actually owned more possession in its games than TFC managed in 2017.
However, Nicolas Lodeiro was ineffective. He was dispossessed three times, which led to dangerous TFC counterattacks. Eventually, the Uruguayan stopped receiving the ball. Cristian Roldan and Gustav Svensson were overrun as well.
“I’ve always picked out one stat on the stats sheet that I feel is very important for success, and that is duels won,” said Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer. “They had 33 duels won and we had 10. Normally, our team is very good in that department and we’ve been very good about that all year long. What I would say there is that they came out in the first half, very fired up – we knew they would be – we get through halftime, and we think we get a little break, but then they come out in the second half, and again, won more duels.”
Osorio and Delgado were helping out with the defensive duties, but were also making darting runs forward. If they noticed Seattle’s full-backs were too high up, they’d pick out Giovinco or Altidore in behind the back line.
Vazquez was also dropping deeper, likely to avoid being shut down by Svensson or Roldan. It paid off because the Spaniard had room to operate. Without Osvaldo Alonso – who was key in man-marking TFC’s big guns last year – no one could properly track the TFC playmaker.
However, it was Bradley who shined in the heart of midfield. Since TFC was playing with two centre-backs, he would stay next to Drew Moor and Chris Mavinga when the Reds had possession near their own box. That protected the hosts from being exploited on a turnover. Once the ball moved forward, the captain roamed forward to act as a connector in the final third.
When a team’s midfield is in sync, it’s difficult to stop it. That camaraderie TFC has built over the past couple of years truly came into play on Saturday night.
“You want to step into the biggest moments with people that you would do anything for,” said Bradley. “That you love, that you believe in, that you trust, that you know have your back. I would do anything for any one of those guys and I know that they’d do the same for me.”
Goals may be the most important statistic, but if a midfield is not clicking, then it’s never easy to win. Luckily for TFC, their quartet was alert from the first whistle.