Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoff Conference Semifinals analysis | Bobby Warshaw

Greg Vanney - NYCFC - playoffs's Bobby Warshaw breaks down Wednesday night's Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoff matches.

Seattle's experience gets the best of RSL

Institutional knowledge. There’s no book you can read or class you can take that will teach you the lessons that experience can provide. There is a level of understanding that only life can offer. Either you know how to do the job or you don’t.

The Seattle Sounders know how to do the job.

They defeated Real Salt Lake2-0 on Wednesday night in the Western Conference Semifinals. It marks the third time in four years that Brian Schmetzer, Nico Lodeiro, Stefan Frei, Cristian Roldan, Jordan Morris and Roman Torres have advanced to the Western Conference Final. 

This season, like Wednesday night’s game, like years prior, hasn’t always made sense. The Sounders struggled to get into a rhythm against RSL; they’ve struggled to find a rhythm since April, really. They haven’t won more than two games in a row since March. They were outplayed for stretches by both FC Dallas and RSL; the visitors had 62% possession on Wednesday night. It’s difficult to describe how the Sounders won or what they did right. It’s still difficult, for anyone except Sounders fans at least, to discern anything specific about the team’s style of play. 

Yet here the Sounders are, second place in the West in the regular season for the third year in a row, and now onto the Conference Final for the third time in four years. They find a way. Or, perhaps better put at this point, they have their way.

Truthfully, it would be nice if it made more sense. It would be nice if we could describe it on a piece of paper. It’s tough to grasp something that you can’t explain. At some point, though, the data points speak for themselves. Beyond any discussion of tactics or style or systems is the ability to win a soccer game. Soccer comes down to navigating a few key moments. Either you know how to win those moments or don’t. 

The Sounders know how to win those moments. 

I would say that they will be underdogs heading into the Conference Final, especially if LAFC win on Thursday night against the LA Galaxy (10:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US | TSN4, TVAS in Canada). That’d be the logical answer. Logical, though, hasn’t really been the Sounders way in the last few years. They do it their way. Their way has worked pretty damn well so far.

Vanney's tactics lead TFC over NYCFC

Players win games, coaches lose games, right?

Usually! But not always... Toronto boss Greg Vanney masterfully guided Toronto FC to a 2-1 win over New York City FC on Wednesday night.

We’ve had thrilling in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. We’ve had dramatic. We’ve now had our first tactical duel.

Toronto took the field for the second straight playoff game without two key players; Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez both missed out on the starting XI due to injury. It would have been an uphill battle for Toronto even with their full roster; leaving New York with a win without Altidore and Gonzalez felt like a step too far. NYCFC had gone 11-1-2 over the last 14 games, clearly marking themselves as the favorites in the East.

Vanney found a way to turn the absences into an advantage. He deployed the same lineup as Saturday’s win over the D.C. UnitedLaurent Ciman at center back and Nicolas Benezet in the attack. It put Toronto’s most energetic, aggressive lineup together. Toronto pressed NYCFC from the jump, stepping all the way to the top of the Cityzens’ box and going man for man across the field. Toronto completely suffocated NYCFC. The home side struggled to put more than two passes together, and TFC dominated the loose ball challenges. TFC’s constant running from their press kept them physically engaged compared to NYCFC, who often started stagnant as they assumed their positional play spots in the buildout; the Reds always moved a step quicker to 50/50s.

Then as soon as Toronto won the ball, they took off. TFC attempted 113 less passes than their regular season average. Instead, it was all about energy and directness. NYCFC’s back four looked overwhelmed; they never had any idea where the runs would come from due to TFC’s formation which functioned as a 4-1-5, with the five attackers interchanging across the field .

NYCFC, the most flexible team in the league, couldn’t find an answer. The simple solution seemed to be a switch from the 4-3-3 into the 3-4-2-1, but it never happened. It begs the simple question: Why had Dome Torrent made tactical flexibility his No. 1 priority over the last 18 months if he didn’t trust the flexibility in the biggest game of the year?

It took until halftime for NYCFC to adjust. They switched to a diamond midfield with Alexandru Mitrita at the point and used his speed to run behind the defenders, forcing TFC’s lines to separate. TFC didn’t back off, though, and found the opener on a mistake by Maxime Chanot.

Thirteen minutes later, Dome Torrent brought on Heber, who missed out on the starting lineup as he recovered from injury. Only then did NYCFC start to work their way into the game. They scored an equalizer and looked likely to get a second.

From there, Toronto’s players deserve the credit. This is a team that had struggled with focus over the last two years, for a variety of reasons that are perfectly understandable. They’ve been criticized from every angle, also for fair reasons. You can’t do anything but applaud them after this performance, however. They looked like the 2017 championship-version of themselves.

They stayed committed, won their duels and looked ready to run their legs off on the field. As the saying goes, you make your own luck. That luck came in the 88th minute when Richie Laryea got a step on Ronald Matarrita in the box and Mataritta brought him down. Alejandro Pozuelo finished the PK in the same way he entered the league… with a chip down on the middle on Sean Johnson.

It’s been a hilly four years for Toronto. The loss in 2016 MLS Cup followed by the win in 2017, to the Concacaf Champions League final loss in PKs, to the totally miserable season in 2018. It felt like those rolling plains had plateaued, farther toward the bottom than they would have liked — most signs pointed to their run of success coming to an official end.

Greg Vanney and his 14 fighters made sure the ride continues. Off to the Eastern Conference Final they go, for the third time in four years.