The 2016 MLS Cup is bound to be a tasty match-up, with two teams featuring star talent and good squads squaring off for the ultimate prize. Ahead of the big game (Dec. 10, 8 pm ET, FOX, UniMás | TSN1/3/4, RDS in Canada), let's examine five potential keys for the match.
1. Can Lodeiro and Giovinco be handcuffed in the biggest occasion?
There's no question that the talent on either side begins with the superstar playmaker. Nicolas Lodeiro made an instant impact since joining the Sounders midseason, and has consistently been integral to Seattle's progression throughout the playoffs. Sebastian Giovinco, meanwhile, has been a bit more hit-or-miss in the playoffs, huge in the Knockout Round against Philadelphia and in the Conference Semifinals against New York City FC, but considerably quieter in the last round against the Montreal Impact.
The question for both teams is how to neutralize the opposing playmaker, while also doing what they can to ensure their own playmaker can do his thing. Will Michael Bradley be tasked with tracking, possibly even man-marking Lodeiro? Likewise, will Ozzie Alonso do the same for Giovinco? Each holding midfielder has far more talents beyond simply defending the opponent's best player out of a game, but in a one-game, winner-take-all occasion, the unenviable task of neutralizing may largely fall to Bradley and Alonso.
2. Can Jordan Morris finish his chances?
The newly-crowned MLS Rookie of the Year got hot when his team needed him most, scoring two out of three goals for the Sounders in their Western Conference Championship series win over the Colorado Rapids. It's an impressive rise for the Homegrown striker, who struggled a bit in the early part of his debut pro season to finish chances and was a streaky scorer throughout the campaign.
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Everybody knows that in a final, the chances are usually hard to come by, and players may only get one or two looks on goal. Morris, who has scored for the US national team against Mexico, won College Cup with Stanford, and is now progressing through his first MLS Cup Playoffs, knows pressure. The question is whether he'll convert the chance or two he gets at MLS Cup.
3. Who will take the edge in set pieces?
Both of these teams are capable of playing exciting attacking soccer from the run of play. But they are also both adept at set pieces, a skill that many title-winning sides have in their toolbox.
What's interesting in this particular match-up is that both teams have outstanding dead ball specialists (Giovinco and Lodeiro, of course), capable of both scoring directly off set pieces or setting up a teammate on a restart. But they also both have a plethora of options among their teammates to pick out on free kicks or corner kicks. Lodeiro can count on Chad Marshall, Roman Torres, Nelson Valdez, Cristian Roldan and Morris to be legitimate targets, while Giovinco has Nick Hagglund, Drew Moor, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Will Johnson and yes, even Benoit Cheyrou as good options. Some of the targets are giants in the box, others smaller players who can find space in a scrum, but all of them show that Seattle and Toronto have put in the work to ensure set pieces are part of their arsenal. The question for MLS Cup is which team will gain the edge in this department.
4. Jozy vs. Roman
TFC's Altidore is listed at 6-feet, 175 lbs. His likely combatant in MLS Cup, Seattle' Torres, is listed at 6-foot-2, 195 lbs. Let's get ready to rumble!
In truth, while there may be some chippy play between the duo, one expects the face-off to be limited to soccer matters. But that doesn't make the match-up any less compelling. Both players are physically dominant, fast, and skilled on their respective sides of the ball. Altidore is in absolutely blistering form right now, and the Sounders will probably throw more players towards defending him rather than giving Torres the sole responsibility, but this particular match-up could very well prove to be decisive in the final.
5. The impact of the wide defenders
The Sounders deploy an MLS-traditional four-defender back line, with Joevin Jones and Tyrone Mears pushing forward frequently throughout the match and certainly putting in work in attack. And while Toronto have moved to a 3-man defense, fullbacks Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour have slotted in as wingbacks in short order, and their proclivity to push up in attack has continued.
So the question for MLS Cup is which set of wide defenders will make more of a difference on both sides of the field. If one of the four players sends in a great cross that leads to a goal on one end, but is too high up to help stop two opposition goals, the two-way play will be a net negative. But sitting back and defending may make their own team's attack too static. If one set of wide defenders has a clear edge in the game, they will likely be on the winning side in MLS Cup.