ExtraTime Radio Podcast
LISTEN: Sigi Schmid joins the guys to preview MLS Cup in Toronto. First up, a big-picture look at what Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders have accomplished to get to this point and what's at stake, then a comprehensive tactical breakdown ahead of the big game.
The 21st edition of the MLS Cup will be played on Saturday (8 pm ET; Fox & UniMas in the US | TSN 1/3/4 & RDS in Canada) at BMO Field. It will be cold, and it will be at least a little bit windy, and it will be a game featuring the two best players in the league.
Toronto FC have Sebastian Giovinco, and the Seattle Sounders have Nicolas Lodeiro. Let us all rejoice in that, and the fun that could – maybe even should – ensue because of it. The soccer gods should bless us with one of the more entertaining Cup finals in recent memory if everything goes as it should.
But then again, everybody's got a plan until they get punched in the face, right? If one team comes out hot, the other could go into a shell; if injuries are a factor, "sit and counter" could turn into "sit and sit;" if the "little bit windy" forecast turns into the type of gales that can howl in off Lake Ontario, the game could get straight-up weird.
"Weird" is, of course, this league's wheelhouse. Consider that fair warning, especially since this game is in December in Canada...
Let's take a look at the game:
The Shape of Things to Come
Toronto FC are on an almighty attacking tear, and seem well on their way to becoming the highest-scoring team, in terms of goals per game, in league postseason history. They opened the floodgates with a 3-1 win over the Union in the Knockout Round, then scored seven goals in each of their aggregate wins over NYCFC and Montreal.
And it needs to be understood: It's not just Giovinco, and you could even make a pretty good argument that it's not even primarily Giovinco. Jozy Altidore's been the best player in the league during the postseason, and Justin Morrow's getting forward on the overlap, and Tosaint Ricketts is a game-changer off the bench, and Jonathan Osorio and Armando Cooper have had their moments in attacking midfielders, and Michael Bradley can still pick his spots, and oh my goodness is that Benoit Cheyrou of all people with a series-winning header?
This team is deep and dangerous from open play, and suddenly devastating on restarts. Goals, goals, goals.
Seattle aren't in MLS Cup by accident – though Sporting KC fans might want to quibble with that at least a little bit. Since squeezing by SKC 1-0 in the Knockout Round, Seattle have posted a 4-2 aggregate win over this year's Supporters' Shield/US Open Cup double winners, FC Dallas, and followed that up with a comprehensive 3-1 aggregate win over the Colorado Rapids. That happened to include a 1-0 win at Colorado in the Sounders' most recent game, which was the only home loss of the year for the Rapids in any competition.
So I don't think home-field advantage is something that's going to shake the Rave Green. More to the point, is that they've allowed just three goals in five playoff games. They're not getting quite the same variety of goalscorers as TFC, but between that defense and the good work that Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Nelson Valdez have done as a front three... like I said, they're not here by accident.
Seattle's Big Question: Will Lodeiro start on the wing or in the hole?
He can do either, but I think he's more unpredictable when he starts on the right wing. That, of course, makes Seattle more unpredictable, and thus more difficult to stop in open play.
What makes Lodeiro unique among No. 10s in this league is the amount of ground he covers, which allowed head coach Brian Schmetzer the flexibility to play him on the wing and not worry about that side getting overrun defensively. There are, of course, times in which he'll be vacant and right back Tyrone Mears will have to play 1-v-2 defensively, but those moments have been few and far between, and Lodeiro always makes an honest effort at recovery runs.
Offensively, even if you start Lodeiro on the right he'll show up just about everywhere. Below is a network passing graph from the 3-0 first-leg win over Dallas, created using Opta data:
Each circle represents each player's aggregate position, and the thickness of the lines represents the number of passes exchanged back and forth. Lodeiro is No. 10, and Erik Friberg is No. 8, and even though the graphic looks like that, I swear to you that Lodeiro was actually the right winger in this game. He just moves around so much that he gets touches all over the place.
Toronto's Big Question: The 3-5-2 or the 3-4-1-2?
The difference between the two formations is the orientation of the central midfield triangle. In the 3-5-2 you have one midfielder sitting deep as a lone No. 6, and two others pushed up higher in more attacking roles (though neither as a true No. 10). In the 3-4-1-2 you flip that triangle, with the No. 10 protected by a pair of deeper midfielders.
There are advantages and drawbacks to every formation, but the ability to flex into that 3-4-1-2 was critical for the Reds against Montreal:
3-4-1-2 for TFC adds a bit of protection to deep central midfieldhttps://t.co/3WGaP0peBT— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) December 8, 2016
First Drew Moor makes a terrible pass but because both Bradley and Will Johnson are deep, TFC have enough numbers to deal with the potential Montreal breakaway. Next, Bradley gets on the ball and nobody from Montreal closes him down because they're so worried about Giovinco – who's bracketed by two defenders – and, to a lesser extent, Johnson.
That, of course, draws the Montreal defense inside, which gives Morrow plenty of room to work out wide.
Lots more had to go right for this to turn into a goal, but it did eventually, didn't it? And for what it's worth, if you have Lodeiro getting on the ball and cutting across the field in Zone 14, you'd probably want to have more than one guy protecting that area, especially since Friberg (if he plays) or Cristian Roldan can stride forward into open space and punish you.
The Jozy & Joevin Factors
The record for combined goals and assists in a single postseason is 10, held jointly by Ante Razov (4g/6a in 2000) and Carlos Ruiz (8g/2a) in 2002. Altidore has nine (5g/4a) thus far in 2016.
He's looked very much like the best center forward in the league since returning from injury in midsummer, and the numbers back that up. He's a little different from what we think of with No. 9s, though. A guy like David Villa, for example, tends to drift into the gap between the central defender and fullback, while a guy like Fanendo Adi likes to head directly to the central defenders, put his back into them, and brute force them to death. Morris, when he's playing as a No. 9, runs off the back shoulder and tries to stretch the field.
Altidore can do a little of all of that, but he's actually at his best when he's getting on the ball in the pocket of space between the central defense and the central midfield. He actually compresses the field a bit when he does that, which can make TFC's spacing very tricky. But when he's doing that while paired with another center forward who can run and stretch the field like Charlie Davies or Bobby Wood or Tosaint Ricketts, he's a devastating playmaker. Watch the video embedded at the top of this page and you'll see what I mean.
That same "devastating playmaker" thing can be said about Seattle's left back, Joevin Jones. He has three assists this postseason:
Pretty simple for Seattle: They're orders of magnitude better when they can get Jones up on the overlap.https://t.co/mVyu8MePDH— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) December 8, 2016
It's no secret that they're significantly better when he's able to get forward on the overlap. The same is true of Mears on the other side, but not quite as much.
A few more things to ponder...
5. Zavaleta has been very good during this playoff run, but he's mostly been matched up against technicians like Tommy McNamara or Ignacio Piatti, rather than outright speedsters like Morris. If he gets turned early, expect Beitashour to drop deeper and deeper in an attempt to help, and if that happens the three-man TFC backline turns into a five-man backline really quick.
4. Cooper has had some really good moments, but if he's going to play as the "1" in the 3-4-1-2, he has to be a little more daring with his passing. He too often plays safe, instead of hitting the ball that can put the defense under pressure.
3. This is the biggest worry for Seattle fans:
Friberg was really good in the first leg vs. Colorado, then didn't even make the bench for the second, while Evans has been a non-factor for the last two months. Neither of those things bodes particularly well, but Seattle can cope (Flaco Fernandez would be my choice to start in Friberg's place if he can't go).
No Ozzie, though? That's a potentially fatal blow to this team. His field coverage is what allows Jones and Mears to get forward, and is a big chunk of what allows Lodeiro to roam all over. Roldan can make up for some of that, but not all of it.
2. Set pieces should be a wash in this one, as both teams are elite both attacking and defending on restarts. And in Giovinco and Lodeiro, they are two of the best in the league going direct.
1. And in the end it all means... I'm not sure what, but Andrew Wiebe is a tyrant who forced me to make a pick on ExtraTime Radio, so I have to be a man of my word and stand by it: I think TFC takes the Cup, and do so with some style. This should be a more attacking and inventive final than we've seen over the last few years, and I suspect that the afterparty is going to be legendary.