TORONTO – Goals win games and defense wins championships, but it is in the midfield where matches are truly decided.
Saturday night’s MLS Cup final between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders at BMO Field (8 pm ET; FOX and UniMás in US | TSN and RDS in Canada) will be no different, as the two teams left standing in the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs face off to determine who will hoist the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy after the final whistle.
Both are stacked with offensive talent, each has pace out wide, a wealth of experience and defensive nous. But with two of MLS' premier defensive midfielders on the pitch – Michael Bradley and Osvaldo Alonso – whoever bosses the middle of the park will give their side the advantage.
“What goes on in the center goes a long way towards dictating who wins,” said Bradley following TFC training on Friday.
Speaking during Thursday's press conference, Toronto head coach Greg Vanney agreed.
“The overall battle in midfield is going to be important,” he said. “The team that dominates will have the majority of the opportunity to win the game.”
Standing in Toronto's way will be Alonso, who Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer confirmed will play, despite leaving the Sounders' Western Conference Championship second-leg win over Colorado with a knee sprain.
“[Alonso] is important for their group; he and [Cristian] Roldan,” said Bradley, “in terms of giving their team balance, allowing Jordan Morris and [Nicolas] Lodeiro freedom, where they go and how they play. We have big respect for them.”
Vanney described Alonso as, “a guy who has made a living out of protecting the back line, winning balls, trying to play simple, quick, and keep the game moving, but disrupt and break up plays.”
And he found easy comparison between the stern-faced Seattle bulldog and Toronto's Will Johnson, who may line up alongside Bradley as he did in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Championship against Montreal.
“Will's a winner, a competitor; a very good soccer player,” said Vanney. “But it's the intangibles: competition, fight, laying it all out there in every play, that he adds to our group.
Johnson, a former member of the Portland Timbers, is no stranger to the dynamics of the Seattle midfield, having partaken in more than a few Cascadia contests.
“Very good team; they very work hard,” said Johnson of the Sounders on Wednesday. “Alonso has been around a long time for a reason. He's very good at what he does. We've got guys, who can match up, complement each other to deal with a lot of things that they throw. [It's] nothing that we haven't already seen, but nothing that we can take lightly.
“It's going to be a good battle. Any time you go against a guy like Alonso, you relish that challenge because you know he's going to bring it and you've got to bring it, too.”