MLS Cup has given us a very intriguing match between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders, and we should be thankful for that. Imagine for a second the 0-0 dourness of a sit-deep-and-counter Montreal Impact going to the Rockies to play the sit-deep-and-grind-it-out Colorado Rapids. Gross, right? Instead, we get two teams that want to press high, that want to keep the ball, and that do some pretty interesting stuff tactically. And if this paragraph has jinxed the game and caused MLS’s showcase game to be lame and boring, you know where to find me.
Let’s get into what makes these teams tick:
There aren’t too many questions here. Will Johnson seems to have pushed Jonathan Osorio out in the past couple of games, and that’s as it should be. Osorio leaves Greg Vanney with less tactical flexibility, and he’s been ineffective to boot. TFC has no other major positional battle going on, and no injuries to notable players. Sebastian Giovinco was removed in extra time against Montreal, but that was just down to a cramping calf.
Off the subs bench, look for Tosaint Ricketts in just about any imaginable scenario. He’s been great for TFC since arriving in the summer window, using his speed to open space up top while also showing a great understanding with Altidore. Vanney has also tended to not leave Johnson in for 90 minutes, while Armando Cooper’s tendency to pick up yellow cards may force a sub there. Osorio or Marky Delgado could be candidates to step in for him in that case.
Where do they struggle? The 352 leaves gaps down both wings, and the Impact showed Seattle exactly what to do about it. Jordan Morris will probably push high up the wing in an effort to force a one-on-one duel with either Eriq Zavaleta or Nick Hagglund. Toronto will have to choose between letting that happen and pushing numbers up anyway - that’s why the conference final was so nuts - or dropping their wingbacks in and playing more of a 532.
There is slightly less certainty with the Seattle starting eleven, but not by much. Nine spots are locked in, and Osvaldo Alonso has apparently recovered from the knee problem that forced him off early against Colorado. Nicolas Lodeiro will definitely start, but will he be on the right, or in the middle? If he’s wide, that frees Brian Schmetzer up to deploy Erik Friberg or Alvaro Fernandez in a role that will involve a lot of cancelling out Bradley more than it will traditional #10 stuff. Lodeiro is no passenger, though, so he can play in the middle (which would likely mean Fernandez pinching in from the right) and still help prevent TFC from building possession.
Another issue is where to deploy Morris. Hagglund struggled so much against Dominic Oduro that playing Morris on the right wing has legitimate appeal. Lodeiro could just play out on the left, or in the middle with Fernandez on the left. My best guess is that we’ll see the lineup on the right side of this page to start, but we’ll also see Seattle shift the pieces around for a chunk of each half.
Off the bench, look for Brad Evans to come on...somewhere. It’s also an open question how long he can play, so he may not be the first or second player in if the game is tied. However, Evans is trusted in nearly every position on the field, and if this one could be headed to penalties, he’s an ace. Herculez Gomez might get a run out against his former club, while the non-starter from Fernandez and Friberg is also likely to get in. If Morris gets hurt, look for Schmetzer to bring Oniel Fisher in at left back, pushing Joevin Jones up into the attack. Seattle needs that speed from somewhere, and their list of options in that department is short.
So where’s the weakness here? Other than Jones, the Seattle back four lacks in agility and quickness over short distances. Dribblers like Giovinco and Cooper can cause them fits, and Ricketts will also be a match-up problem for them whenever he comes in. TFC might also want to push Justin Morrow up high, as his speed would be tough for Tyrone Mears to deal with. Of course, we already talked about TFC possibly having to drop their wingbacks deep, and this is the flip side of that coin.
Two different approaches to speed
These two teams will use their speed in different ways, at different times, in different areas of the field. Morris pushing for an individual battle with either Zavaleta or Hagglund seems like a must for Seattle, but which one do you choose? If Jones is able to overlap effectively, does Seattle keep Morris on the left and simply overwhelm that side of the field with speed? Or do they move Morris to the right wing, leaving TFC to deal with pace they can’t match on both sides of the field?
It’s a nice problem to have, but it hinges on that “if Jones is able to overlap effectively” qualifier. If TFC gets more of the ball and starts to get consistent results from their high press, Jones won’t be able to jump into the attack, and one of TFC’s main problems is suddenly less of an issue. The opening stages will be huge in terms of dictating the terms and setting a rhythm for both teams. If Jones gets going, TFC is going to have a hard time keeping the Sounders off the board. Oduro already showed us what elite speed can do against this back three; now imagine how things will look if there’s no help coming from Steven Beitashour.
On the other side, TFC doesn’t have a Morris level speedster in their starting lineup. However, they can bring Ricketts in off the bench, and that won’t be good news for Roman Torres or Chad Marshall. TFC will want the game to be a bit stretched at that point so they can play Ricketts in behind. It’s tempting to say that Giovinco is the main danger in terms of supplying the final ball, but lately the best service going to Ricketts has come from Altidore.
Altidore finally meets his match?
Speaking of Altidore, this will be a far different game than each previous playoff outing. Look at the center back pairings he’s faced in the postseason:
- Philadelphia: Ken Tribbett, Richie Marquez
- NYCFC, 1st leg: Frederic Brillant, Andoni Iraola, Maxime Chanot (in a back 5)
- NYCFC, 2nd leg: Frederic Brillant, Maxime Chanot
- Montreal, 1st leg: Victor Cabrera, Laurent Ciman
- Montreal, 2nd leg: Victor Cabrera, Laurent Ciman
In each case, Altidore had at least one player - and most of the time, two players - he could physically bully all over the field. He’s used that advantage in a variety of ways, and he’s produced 5 goals and 4 assists in the playoffs so far. Altidore has been winning most of his battles against every center back he’s come across for months, but it hasn’t been a particularly tough bunch to beat in the playoffs.
Today, he’s up against Torres and Marshall, neither of whom have to shy away from physical contact against Altidore to avoid being pushed around. This will be the first time in the playoffs that Altidore is up against center backs who could conceivably shut him down. He’s been in great form, but he’ll have to take that up a level to have the same kind of success tonight.
Shutting down the 6
Alonso and Bradley are the key cogs in their team’s possession game, but Seattle’s formation gives them an easier chance of making Bradley’s life miserable than TFC will have with Alonso. The Sounders are likely to deploy Friberg (or Fernandez) in the attacking midfield position, but job #1 in that spot will be to get in Bradley’s face and/or make it hard to pass to him out of the back. Even if Lodeiro is deployed in the middle, his high work rate will let Seattle pose a question that TFC will have a hard time answering.
The Reds have a tough choice to make in terms of how they line their central midfield up. In the flatter 352, there’s no one naturally in the space that Alonso will occupy when the Sounders are building up. Most likely, that will require Giovinco and Altidore to put in extra work closing off passing lanes to Alonso. We saw TFC try to send their other midfielders forward against Montreal, and the Impact immediately seized on the fact that this meant Bradley was covering a huge amount of space all by himself.
The other problem TFC will run into out of the 352 is the fact that Cristian Roldan can also drop off and be the focal point of possession. He’s not as good as Alonso, but he’s good enough that Toronto can’t just sell out on Alonso and figure that the issue is settled. If TFC can consistently play high enough up the field, they can set themselves up with three individual battles in central midfield, but I’m not sure they want that either. With Lodeiro free to roam and willing to do the work on both sides of the ball, that 3v3 would quickly become a 3v4 on a regular basis.
The other option is to shift into a 3412, with Cooper playing higher up in front of Bradley and Johnson. This would make it harder to stop Seattle from finding Alonso out of the back, but it would also leave TFC with an extra body in a defensive position (meaning Seattle’s possession would have a harder time opening Toronto up). The weakness there? Vanney doesn’t see Johnson as 90 minutes fit right now after (yet another) injury-plagued season, and Cooper doesn’t create much danger as a passer when playing this high up the field.