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We're still 12 days away from the first leg of the respective Conference Championship series, but that's ok. Film study and tactical prep has already started in Ohio and Ontario, Texas and Washington. Without work, there's no chance for success.
And obviously, the work that's done in each camp is twofold. On the one hand, it's about sharpening up the things you already do – making sure passing patterns are well drilled, and off-the-ball movement is clear and sharp, and defensive responsibilities are clear. On the other, it's about preparing for what your opponent's going to throw at you. For Wilmer Cabrera, unraveling the Seattle defense is a different sort of proposition than unraveling Portland or Sporting KC, you know?
With that in mind, here's one big question for each of the four teams remaining in the hunt for MLS Cup.
Columbus Crew SC
Can they push their backline up without risking catastrophic defensive errors?
In the first leg of their Eastern Conference Semifinals win over NYCFC, Columbus set the world record for most mistakes by a team in a 4-1 win. Only one of them led to a goal (obviously), but that game could've been 4-4 as easily as it was 4-1.
Then in Leg 2, they spent the full 90 defending in Zack Steffen's lap, and...
Look, Columbus deserved to advance. But they were also very lucky to advance – Jack Harrison could've squared to David Villa in the 65th minute, and Rodney Wallace smashed one off the post 10 minutes later after sombrero'ing Harrison Afful. Crew SC are where they are by virtue of an extra layer of paint on the woodwork.
I don't think they can afford to defend that deep against a Toronto FC. The Reds have been an elite finishing team all year, even without Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco. Give them the box, and they will score.
However, Columbus have struggled to be clean on the ball in central defense. If they bring their line up, then there's room for the Reds (particularly the speedy Tosaint Ricketts, who's likely to start in Leg 1) to run clean through on goal.
It's a pick your poison thing.
Will they get the wingbacks forward?
Justin Morrow finished second in Defender of the Year balloting, and he deserved it. He's been a relentless, reliable and effective two-way player for Toronto over the last two seasons, and his ability to play wingback, fullback and as an emergency center back from time to time allowed TFC to get through some injury-inflicted rough patches.
His best game of the year – probably the best game of his life – came at the end of September in a 4-2 win over the Red Bulls, in which Morrow bagged a hat-trick. He was phenomenal.
However, that's the only game in which Morrow's scored over the past three months. Over on the right side, probable starter Steven Beitashour isn't that type of player (he hasn't scored since 2013). They haven't been bad, but they've been a little bit more static and a little less dynamic than in previous months.
This is probably fine for the Reds, especially once they get Altidore and Giovinco back. What's made this team special is that they can play out of a shell, going forward with only three guys (Victor Vazquez being the third), and still crack open most defenses. They don't need to take risks around the edge.
But what made them irresistible through most of the summer was when they'd push Morrow and Beitashour (or back-ups Raheem Edwards and Nicolas Hasler) bombing down the flanks and getting into the box, or at the very least getting dangerous in the final third. Doing that dragged defenders out of the middle to open up huge swathes for the rest of the attack to take advantage of:
If I'm Greg Vanney, I'm pushing those guys forward.
Can they move the Seattle center backs around?
They're utterly dominant in the box, winning everything in the air, cutting down angles, playing generally mistake-free soccer, and keeping play in front of them (by and large). Some guys their age play "old"; Marshall and Torres play "experienced," and simply don't have many weak points.
The obvious one, though, is a general lack of top-tier mobility from the duo. The key is to get them moving around, and that starts not on the front line, but in central midfield:
Whether it's Alex or Tomas Martinez in that spot, the Dynamo have to be able to put a foot on the ball, draw the defense up, and create gaps for the attack to run into. If they don't, then Seattle will likely post a very comfortable shutout.
Will they get direct penetration out of midfield?
If Morrow provides the third heat for Toronto's attack, it's Cristian Roldan who does that job for Seattle. Clint Dempsey and Nicolas Lodeiro love to come to the ball and get on it a bunch, and Will Bruin is a fairly boilerplate, tactically sound center forward (that's a compliment, by the way). Victor Rodriguez has had his moments coming in from the wing, but is still kind of a mystery.
Roldan, though, has a nose for making the right, line-breaking run at the right time:
Seattle's biggest issue this year has been the slow pace at which they've played in attack. They can go beyond "methodical" into "excruciatingly predictable," and that's how they played against Vancouver for 135 minutes in the West semis.
Then Roldan broke through the lines and "predictable" went out the window for the final 45. He understands teams are so justifiably preoccupied with Dempsey and Lodeiro that the right run at the right time can be decisive.
Sometimes, however, he's too busy with his defensive responsibilities for that kind of dynamism. Seattle should figure out how to free him up somewhere around the 30-minute mark and let him get to work.