This is not a definitive plan for how the Seattle Sounders can beat Toronto FC. A definitive plan would be nearly impossible. A game-specific tactical plan accounts for the setup, and resulting strengths and weaknesses, of the opponent. Toronto, quite simply, are a complete wild card heading into this game.
A definitive plan for MLS Cup (Sunday, 3 pm ET | ABC, Univision, TUDN, TVAS, TSN) would include multiple plans accounting for the multiple possibilities that Toronto could throw out. If we're all being honest, you guys wouldn't read that. So let's break it down into groups and do our best.
First: What's up with Toronto? Specifically, there are three major factors up in the air.
- Will Omar Gonzalez will be back in the starting lineup? Gonzalez is a very different player than Laurent Ciman.
- What formation will Greg Vanney use? He's shifted between multiple shapes this postseason and has dropped a surprise in MLS Cup before. A 4-3-3 presents different questions than a 3-5-2.
- Will Toronto man-mark or defend from a zone? They have traditionally defended zonally, including the Round One game against D.C. United, but moved to a man-to-man system in the last two games (if not intentionally, then through such an aggressive press and active middle block that it looks like man-to-man).
Part of this is by design; Vanney enjoys tactical nuances, and he's had the core of his team together for four years so he could add wrinkles every season. And part of this is also due to desperation; no Jozy Altidore and no Gonzalez will force a person into creative solutions.
Second: There have to be some consistencies from Toronto, though, right? Yes. Here's what can we can reasonably expect from the visitors:
- Toronto will press high on goal kicks and buildouts, especially early in the game. They've done so in the last two games on the road, and there's no reason to stop now; the Sounders' midfield often gets disorganized when pressed effectively.
- TFC's goalkeeper, Quentin Westberg, won't try to build out when pressed. Toronto will set up like they will pass short, with the center backs on the corners of the 18-yard-box, but Westberg will bypass his first line of options and look for players closer to midfield.
- Toronto will pass through midfield. It's their main strength, it's who they are. The thing Toronto do better than than anyone in the league is use the ball to move a defensive block. They are one of the most patient teams in the league, clocking in at the highest number of passes per possession, second in sequences that extend more than six passes, and fourth in time in possession per sequence (all per Opta).
- Toronto will be ready to stop Seattle's wide overloads. The dominant trait of Seattle's attack the last two years has been the ability to form overloads in wide areas and create chances from them. If you enter MLS Cup and aren't ready for it, you should have to take Uber Pools back to Toronto.
- Alejandro Pozuelo will start central and float wherever he wants, leaving space in the middle for other runner to attack.
Third: Okay, so what about the Sounders? Accounting for all variables, here's what Seattle should definitely plan to do.
- Stefan Frei should be ready to clip balls to his outside backs when Toronto press. Toronto use the center striker, which has been Pozuelo throughout the playoffs, to press the goalkeeper. Toronto's wingers then step to the center backs. It means that Toronto's outside backs need to decide between staying with the opposition's wingers or stepping to the opposition's outside backs. They usually choose the former to limit risk. It leaves a fairly easy pass for Frei to make if he's prepared for it.
- Set up the wide overload in the final third, and then go back to the middle. Toronto will almost certainly spend time in training this week – if not base their whole starting formation – on protecting wide channels. TFC will shift numbers wide to help; add that to the fact that defensive midfielder Michael Bradley is limited defensively these days, and there should be space near the top of the 18-yard-box on quickly rotated passes.
- Don't stress if Toronto have the ball in the middle. Seattle are more dangerous in transition than they are in possession. Toronto are good in possession, but Seattle demonstrated last week against LAFC that they can keep anyone in front of them. It's common for home teams in front of big crowds to get antsy; the more comfortable Seattle can remain while defending, the better off they are.
- Have Nico Lodeiro track Bradley out of possession. Perhaps the most subtle part of Seattle's success over LAFC was Lodeiro's diligence in cutting out passing lanes to LAFC's deepest midfielders. If you cut off the main artery, the flow slows down. Lodeiro might be the most gifted attacker in the game, but his most important responsibility could be in the defensive phase.
Fourth: Sounds easy enough. What's so hard here? Here's the "Maybe, Maybe Not" group:
- Bring Raul Ruidiaz off the center backs. It was a key facet of the Sounders' plan against LAFC, as Seattle manager Brian Schmetzer told The Athletic's Matt Pentz: “It is our intention to have Raul check off their back line. Their center backs are very aggressive. When one of the center backs steps to Raul or to Nico in these areas here, then I want Jordan [Morris], Joevin [Jones] and Cristian [Roldan] from a deeper position to get in behind them." If Gonzalez doesn't play and Ciman starts again, this should 1000% be Toronto's plan again. If LAFC's defenders are a 7 on the aggressive spectrum, Chris Mavinga and Ciman are a 9.5. If Gonzalez does play, though, and holds his line, then Seattle's most dangerous scorer has pushed away from goal for nothing.
- Switch Joevin Jones and Jordan Morris. Morris have been excellent on the left recently; he's been able to glide into the middle and combine with teammates en route to goal. If Toronto play a 5-3-2 block, however, Morris' speed will be needed wide. Instead of cutting in, the Sounders will need him to burst around Toronto's outside back to get service into the box. I'd expect Seattle to start with Morris on the left and Jones on the right, but they should be prepared to switch it up.
- Finally, the toughest decision: What do you do with Pozuelo's movement? Do you have a center back follow him, acknowledging that he's Toronto's most dangerous attacker and say, "We aren't going to let their best player beat us"? Or do you pass him on, protect the center back space, ask the midfielders to track him, and risk that he gets the ball with space?
It's this Maybe, Maybe Not group that could determine the game. Schmetzer and his assistants created the perfect game plan to defeat LAFC. This will be a different task. They know exactly what they had to do against Bob Bradley's team. Toronto, conversely, hold the element of surprise. Seattle will need to have multiple cards in their pocket, read the game, and decide which to play. If they play the right hand, it's hard to bet against Lodeiro and Ruidiaz finding a game winner.