The 2020 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs have had it all so far: Late drama, an upset, nail-biting shootouts and Rodrigo Schlegel — the hero who stands tall above all others.
When the matchups were set, the mouthwatering matchup of Round One was Seattle against LAFC, and although the bar has been set high, I still expect this game to live up to its billing. All the ingredients for a blockbuster are there — stars on both sides, two attacking philosophies and of course for LAFC, the revenge factor. In a one-off game, there isn’t much to separate these two teams, and although I can see it going either way, I make the Sounders slight favorites. As long as they can exploit the two clear advantages they have, they’ll win this game. Here’s how they can do it:
Defensive edge will be key
Even without Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez, LAFC will be formidable in attack. The trio of Nico Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz have been exceptional this season but it’s still not enough for me to give the Sounders the edge in attack for a couple of reasons.
First of all, LAFC, despite missing the league MVP for most of the season, still led the league in scoring and their chance creation usually remains consistent no matter who is playing. Second, and most importantly, I cannot put Carlos Vela second to anyone. He exists in his own world and his talent is too next level to play second fiddle even to the Sounders dynamic front line.
Brad Evans and I had former Sounders assistant coach and current LAFC assistant, Ante Razov, on our weekly podcast recently and when we asked him about Vela, he basically said that he was the best talent he’d ever seen in the league and that his trademark move of cutting in from the right before unleashing a curling left-footed shot into the far corner, was essentially like watching Steph Curry shoot a free throw. In other words, you’re more surprised when he misses.
While both attacks pack a punch, there is a clear advantage at the other end of the pitch. LAFC’s goalkeeping issues have been well documented while the Sounders continue to be able to count on Stefan Frei who never seems to put a foot wrong. Further ahead, the Sounders backline, anchored by the excellent Yeimar Gomez Andrade, has shown its strength in depth all season long in how they’ve replaced injured or suspended players without losing their level.
Watch: 2019 Western Conference Championship highlights
LAFC’s story is not quite as simple. To put it kindly, they have been very subpar at times defensively and it’s been a remarkable fall from having the best defensive record in 2019 to what we’ve seen this season.
The right side of their defense has been particularly concerning and although they’ve tried Tristan Blackmon, Latif Blessing and even Eddie Segura at right back, it has never looked settled as teams have repeatedly found joy over there. It just so happens that one of Seattle’s strongest weapons is how they attack on the left (LAFC’s right) and I don’t think they’ll have an answer for Jordan Morris. He’s too fast for Blackmon and Segura, and even though Blessing matches up well athletically, he ball watches and loses himself positionally because he’s very attack-minded.
Making matters worse on that side is the fact that Lodeiro often drifts over to that side to combine with Morris and create an impossible scenario for whoever plays right back. If you step to Lodeiro, you leave space in behind for him to play a through ball for Morris, and if you play it safe and stay home to deny Morris the space in behind, then Lodeiro can just dribble freely into the final third.
Teams can remedy this by sending a defensive midfielder out there with Lodeiro, but then you leave a gaping hole in the middle of the park with an open passing lane Ruidiaz — also not ideal. Ultimately, the only way you can defend this scenario is by having really good defenders who can adjust on the fly — but that’s something LAFC have repeatedly failed to do all season. Both attacks are fantastic, but it’s on the defensive side where Seattle has their first advantage.
Value of the counterattack
I love Bob Bradley as a coach, I really do. Purely from a tactics and football perspective, he has done wonders in LA. Last season, he introduced ideas into MLS that had never been executed at such an elite level and he forced everyone else to try and innovate in order to keep up with his team.
What I love most about him is that he’s arrogant enough — in the best possible way — to play his own way whether it’s home or away. I’ve often wondered why more MLS managers don’t go for it away from home in a league with no relegation. Bradley doesn’t have that problem, he believes in his ideas and is willing to pit them against anyone else’s as he’d rather lose trying to do it his way than by letting fear dictate how his team should play. For all of their supposed struggles this season, LA still led the league in scoring while missing the MVP for most of the season.
They create patterns and triangles that no one else does and they ask you questions in the final third that very few teams can answer. It’s the movement off the ball — how, when and where to run — the give and gos, the third man running, the positioning of players in unorthodox spots and of course the individual brilliance of some of their attackers that makes them the best attacking team in MLS — when everyone is healthy and in form. I say that to say this — LAFC are going to go for it against the Sounders. They will not sit back, they will attack and try to dominate the ball, even though they are missing a few key guys. And this is exactly what the Sounders should want them to do.
It’s no secret that Seattle’s biggest struggles have come against teams that decide to sit deep, take away the space in behind and try to play on the counter. Teams that have tried to go toe to toe against the Sounders, especially in Seattle, have usually been put to the sword.
Although the Sounders enjoy possession and dominating the ball, they are more than capable of playing without and hitting you on the counter. This is why LAFC’s style may play perfectly into the strengths of Morris, Ruidaz and Lodeiro. We only have to look back to last year's playoff game between these two to see how this can play out. LAFC dominated the ball in that game, Seattle sat back and waited for the right time to get out on the counter. The result was four or five attacks and three goals, and a place in MLS Cup.
I don’t expect the Sounders to implement that exact plan, of being willing to sit back for 90 minutes — I think we will see a hybrid between possessing the ball and taking the game to LA and then allowing LA to play right into their hands by committing numbers forward while leaving space in behind.
It’s these two areas — having the better defensive group and the fact that LAFC play in only one way, and as brilliant as it can be, it plays right into some of Seattle’s biggest strengths — that makes the Rave Green the more likely to advance.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.