Stejskal: The star-studded individual battles that will determine MLS Cup

TORONTO – Saturday’s MLS Cup rematch between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders (4 pm ET; ESPN, UniMas in the US | TSN, TVAS in Canada) might feature the biggest collection of stars of any final in league history.

From Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Victor Vazquez in Toronto to Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro, Roman Torres and Cristian Roldan in Seattle, this weekend’s matchup will feature far more talent than your typical final. TFC and the Sounders are built well from top to bottom. Both have stars at the top of their roster, quality in every position and impact options off the bench.

All that skill will collide on Saturday, with several huge individual match-ups set to play out at BMO Field. Here’s a look at three of the most important, most intriguing battles we’ll see on Saturday:

Clint Dempsey vs. Michael Bradley

The American icons (or iconoclasts, depending on your perspective) have played together dozens of times on the US national team, but have faced off on only a handful of occasions in MLS. They should see plenty of each other on Saturday.

Nearly every Toronto defender will be tasked with slowing Dempsey as he roams all over the attacking third, but he’ll be Bradley’s responsibility when he tucks into the middle or drops deep in search of the ball. Tracking him in those spaces will be a big job. Dempsey, who missed last year’s playoffs while sidelined with a heart condition, has been excellent this postseason, recording three goals in three appearances and helping create chances with his combination play in the attack. If he finds pockets between Bradley and Toronto’s center backs, it’ll mean good things for Seattle.  

“Clint enters into the equation in a big way,” Bradley said on Thursday. “[He can] make goals and setup goals, and turn plays that seem like nothing into danger.”

When Toronto have the ball, it’ll be crucial for Dempsey to hassle and harry Bradley. The defensive midfielder is TFC’s tempo setter. When he’s able to take his time, stay clean and pick out Giovinco, Vazquez or Altidore in dangerous positions, Toronto are at their best. When teams put him under considerable pressure, as the New York Red Bulls did in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, things become much, much more difficult for TFC. We’ll see if Dempsey and striker Will Bruin are able to bother him in any meaningful way this weekend.

“You’ve got to deal with more players than just him, but yeah he works hard, he tries to close down the ball, he’s a good passer,” Dempsey said when asked about Bradley on Thursday. “We’ve just got to keep playing our game, keep moving the ball well and I think when we do that, we’re tough to close down.”

Jozy Altidore vs. Roman Torres and Chad Marshall

Altidore is banged up, but made it abundantly clear on Thursday that his injured ankle won’t prevent him from playing on Saturday. Assuming he starts, he’ll be going up against Seattle’s imposing center back duo of Roman Torres and Chad Marshall.

The towering pair are, to put it simply, stellar. They’ve anchored the backline during Seattle’s six-game shutout streak, and the Sounders are much, much better when they’re both in the lineup. In regular season games in which at least one of them didn’t start, Seattle were 3-5-3 with a minus-six goal differential. In the 23 matches the two were both in the XI, the Sounders were 11-4-8 with a plus-20 goal difference.

Both Marshall and Torres are big enough to make things uncomfortable for the physically imposing Altidore, particularly with his hobbled ankle. If they can bother him to the point that he’s unable to hold the ball up for Giovinco and Vazquez, Toronto’s attack will be significantly less dangerous.

Attacking Left vs. Defending Right

Both Seattle, through defender/midfielder Joevin Jones, and Toronto, through Best XI wingback Justin Morrow, are excellent at attacking up the left flank.

They do it somewhat differently. The Sounders take advantage of Jones’ pace, Lodeiro’s creativity and Dempsey’s final product. They go down the left wing all the time, with Toronto head coach Greg Vanney telling MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday that TFC’s analytics say the Sounders attack on the left more often than any MLS team attacks down any one flank. Toronto won’t focus on any one player in their efforts to limit Seattle down the left, but instead try to maintain their overall defensive shape, staying in their zones and shifting when Seattle overload.

“For us, it's less about the individuals and more about taking away the key spaces on the field,” Vanney said. “They’ll have different guys show up in different areas and if we try to track individuals into areas we’re going to get pulled apart. So it’s more about our guys, and recognizing who's supposed to be occupying what space regardless of what guy shows up.”

Toronto are a bit more balanced in their approach, but they do go down the left to great effect through Morrow. The wingback scored eight goals this year, an astonishing total for a defender. He had a lot of success making late runs into the area, taking advantage of the attention given to Altidore, Giovinco and Vazquez to punish the opposition.

Seattle right back Kelvin Leerdam will likely see a lot of Morrow on Saturday. He’s not focused so much on what to do to stop the occasional US international when Toronto’s on the ball, instead looking hold possession and keep Morrow pinned back.

“If we dictate the tempo, he can’t go forward,” Leerdam said. “I think that’s one of the most important things. We need to be clean on the ball, keep the ball and let them chase. I think if we’re able to do that, their fullbacks will be going less forward because they have to keep in mind that we can make some runs, too. But if they have their chances to do that, we just need to be smart tactically, it’s all about tactics in these kind of games.”

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LISTEN: The 2017 MLS season comes down to this... Seattle vs. Toronto, an MLS Cup rematch that might just be the best final of all-time, depending on who you ask. Will the Sounders repeat? Will the Reds lay claim the best season of all-time? David Gass and Sam Stejskal get things started from the Six, and Andrew and Matt finish things off from the Green Room back in NYC. Subscribe so you never miss a show! Download this episode!

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