The 2019 MLS Cup is mere days away, with Seattle Sounders set to host Toronto FC at a sold-out CenturyLink Field on Sunday (3 pm ET | ABC, Univision, TUDN in US; TSN, TVAS in Canada). Both teams served up upsets in the conference finals, with Seattle knocking off Supporters' Shield winners LAFC and Toronto, also going on the road, taking out 2018 MLS Cup Champions Atlanta United.
With the big game drawing closer, Bobby Warshaw takes a look at how the two teams matchup in every part of the field, as well as the sidelines. He broke down the goalkeepers and defenders on Tuesday, the midfield on Wednesday, the attack on Thursday and, finally, the sidelines (coaches and subs) on Friday.
Toronto FC's Quentin Westberg was fantastic against Atlanta United in the Eastern Conference Final. He saved the 11th minute penalty kick to keep the game in reach, and then made a couple of big stops in the second half to secure Toronto’s win. The former US Under-20 'keeper has excellent reflexes and the best passing range of any GK in the league. He’s in excellent form, and form matters for goalkeepers at this point in the year.
When it comes to MLS Cup, though, you want Stefan Frei in goal. This save from the 2016 MLS Cup should get painted onto the side of Seattle city hall.
Both teams should feel good about their goalkeeper situation going into MLS Cup — either team could have a Man of the Match candidate in goal — but Seattle should feel slightly better.
You know what you’re going to get from Seattle. Kim Kee-hee has become one of the more reliable, consistently good center backs in the league. Kelvin Leerdam and Brad Smith will fly down the wings and create chances, then provide good, though not great, defensive cover. Roman Torres or Xavier Arreaga will provide the muscle.
Toronto have more variables.
Omar Gonzalez has not appeared in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs yet as he’s dealt with an injury. He’s made the gameday roster for the last two games, though, and the 10-day rest should give him time to work back toward full fitness. Toronto have only lost once in the 14 games that Gonzalez has started since his return to MLS. Will Vanney reinsert him into the lineup, and break up a pairing in Chris Mavinga and Laurent Ciman that has worked nicely (albeit unconventionally) throughout the playoffs?
Will it be one of those days when Mavinga, Ciman or Gonzalez has a stinker? All three might have more overall talent than Seattle’s center-back pairing, but all three are more prone to that one mistake that could cost the game.
What formation will Vanney use? Toronto have started with a four-defender formation throughout the playoffs, but a 5-3-2 suits them better with everyone healthy. Gonzalez could enter the lineup as a third center back; Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, and Marky Delgado could play as three center mids; and Alejandro Pozuelo could partner Jozy Altidore up top. It’d be risky to go away from what’s helped Toronto be successful thus far in the playoffs, but Vanney isn’t scared to throw a surprise for MLS Cup. Remember when he opted for the diamond midfield in 2017?
I’m going with Seattle just because, as a matter of personal preference, I don’t like variables.
Another thought: I still don’t feel comfortable picking against Michael Bradley in this type of game. I’ve mostly accepted the fact that Bradley isn’t the same player anymore. But how many times in sports have we seen star players rejuvenate their aging bodies for that last “I’m still the man” game? His performances in the previous two MLS Cups were among the best you’ll ever see from a central midfielder in MLS. They were beautiful to watch. He can’t put those games together on a regular basis anymore, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him boss MLS Cup one last time.
It is, after all, reportedly a $6.5 million day for him.
Long answer: Toronto’s attacking personnel has been in flux all season. In their current iteration, Toronto use their wingers in supporting roles; Tsubasa Endoh and Nicolas Benezet mostly function to open the game for their teammates. They contribute by fulfilling a role rather than flexing overwhelming talent. (Though, of course, Benezet scored a gorgeous goal against Atlanta last week.) As noted earlier, Toronto might not use wingers at all this game if they opt for the 5-3-2.
Maybe that’s shenanigans from Jozy (I hope it is, this league could use more shenanigans) and he expects to play on Sunday (Greg Vanney and Brian Schmetzer do, at least to some degree). We have to take it on face value, though. If Altidore can’t start, it’s advantage Seattle. Raul Ruidiaz has three goals and three assists in the three playoff games this year. He’s someone who only needs one look, and can sometimes even make that half chance on his own.
Vanney has pulled some sharp moves with Jozy out, including using Pozuelo as a roaming striker with other players attacking the space he vacates. Pozuelo has done well in the role, and both he and Vanney deserve credit, but it’s tough to manufacture the deadly instincts of someone like Ruidiaz.
One guy has great flow and an excellent scarf game.
The other called me a noob on national television.
I want them both to succeed.
Brian Schmetzer got the better of Vanney in 2016. Vanney got the better of Schmetzer in 2017. Both have pulled masterstrokes so far in the 2019 playoffs. My only add for 2019: it’s often easier to make decisions as a coach on the road, because you don’t have to think about the fans.
Toronto’s subs has been their lifeblood throughout the playoffs. Richie Laryea drew the foul in the Conference Semifinals to help TFC upset NYCFC, then Nick DeLeon scored the banger to beat Atlanta United. With Altidore returning to the team, it seems like Benezet or Endoh could also become an option off the bench.
With that said, who would be surprised if Nouhou Tolo comes off the bench and scores the best game-winner in soccer history?
I think of tactical matchups in very simple terms. If you are the better team (and usually you are if you're playing at home), you will want to be the protagonist; you will try to control the game by controlling the ball. The other team — the inferior team — will, if they are smart, create a defensive game plan, hoping to disrupt the opponent and capitalize on the mistakes. Being the defensive team is easier than being the protagonist, and acts as the great equalizer in soccer. In order to effectively be the aggressor, you need to be really sharp.
I expect the Sounders will attempt to be the protagonist, and Toronto will create a unique defensive game plan — as they have for two straight weeks — to throw them off. While the Sounders are good, I’m not sure that they are good enough to win MLS Cup by controlling the ball.
As a result, Toronto have an inherent tactical advantage heading into the game on Sunday.