The first legs of the Conference Championships certainly did not disappoint.
Toronto FC somehow found a way to climb back into their match against the Montreal Impact — turning what looked like a certain 3-0 rout into an admirable 3-2 effort, and will head back to BMO Field only one goal down in the aggregate. The Seattle Sounders’ victory over the Colorado Rapids was just as exciting. With both sides creating quality opportunities, the 2-1 final could have just as easily been 4-2 if both sides had put away all their chances.
But beyond all four team’s competitive fight and spirited desire to go forward, the true story underpinning Tuesday’s entertaining matches were the heroics of certain midfielders. In particular, a 20-minute spell from Michael Bradley that likely saved Toronto’s season and a masterclass put on by Seattle’s midfield trio of Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan and Erik Friberg.
There is no doubt that the Impact were the superior side for the first 65 minutes against TFC. Montreal dominated play and had three goals to show for it by the 53rd minute. However, minutes 65 to 85 belonged to the Reds.
A slight tactical tweak and the additions of substitutes Will Johnson and Tosaint Ricketts certainly played a part in this. But, the shift in momentum most notably mirrored an uptick in Bradley’s game just at that time.
This 20-minute window featured Bradley connecting 100 percent of his passes in his own half and 80 percent of his passes in the attacking half per the Audi Player Index — up from 87 percent and 74 percent, respectively, during the first 65 minutes.
What’s more, Toronto needed to also find a way to play faster and more directly. Bradley helped to turn the tide in favor for his team in this way as well, playing a long pass an average of every 2.8 minutes between the 65th and 85th — a full 60 seconds more often than he had during the first two thirds of the match. And it was these long passes that ultimately led to TFC’s pivotal away goals in the 68th and 73rd minute, both developed out of a 50-yard passes in which Bradley looked to target Justin Morrow in the final third.
Seattle Central Midfield Triumvirate
It was not surprising to see another round of solid performances from Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro. A little less expected, yet just as significant, was the effectiveness of the midfield of Roldan, Alonso and Friberg.
The Emerald City’s starting central midfielders were sharp all game. As indicated by the Audi Player Index, the three of them completed 178 total passes. Colorado’s Jermaine Jones, Sam Cronin and Kevin Doyle, who began the match in the same positions as the aforementioned Sounders, completed 21 fewer collective passes.
Seattle’s more meaningful possession through the center of midfield allowed them to apply additional pressure and consistently involve their outside backs in the attack, both of whom caused trouble for the Rapids.
If the Rapids and Impact want to make it through to MLS Cup, they are going to have to find a way to produce through the midfield as their opponents did on this night.