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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!
And so we are finally at The Big Game™. Toronto FC host the Sounders on Saturday in the 2017 MLS Cup final (4 pm ET; ESPN & UniMas in the US | TSN 1/4/5 & TVAS in Canada).
Thanks for reading all year. Now let's dive in:
TFC's Tactical Plan: Drag the Sounders backline upfield
Toronto FC had the best attack in the league this past year, and one of the very best attacks in the two-decade history of MLS. They managed it by being multi-faceted – guys stretch touchline-to-touchline – and particularly lethal through the Sebastian Giovinco/Jozy Altidore combo up top.
If they're something of an irresistible force, then the Sounders represent the immovable object. Seattle have conceded just 12 goals in their last 20 games, have 12 shutouts in their last 18, haven't given up a goal in the playoffs, and are riding a nearly 11-hour postseason shutout streak going back to last year. They don't give up cheap goals, and when Roman Torres and Chad Marshall are together in central defense, they do. not. lose.
The task, however, is not impossible. Giovinco and Altidore are both more mobile than Torres and Marshall (remember Altidore completely dominating Torres in the USMNT's 4-0 drubbing of Panama?), and can/should use that to their advantage in what seems like a counterintuitive plan.
Namely: The point of the game is to drive into the box and create high-quality looks. But defending in the box is where Torres and Marshall are most at-home, totally comfortable in emergency defense because they keep the game in front of them. They don't allow you to run into space.
Thus TFC have to hold possession a little bit deeper, pull them up, and...
That's just a lovely goal, isn't it?
Obviously it was a little bit fortunate as well, since Columbus let the punt drop at midfield without contesting it. Seattle will not do that.
But it really is instructive in how to attack solid, connected backlines. Getting runners out of deeper positions can give even the most experienced defenders fits, and that would include Marshall and Torres.
Note that this would be the opposite approach to what TFC took in last year's Cup final, when they drove time and again into the teeth of the Seattle defense and basically set up shop in the attacking third for the duration of the game.
Seattle's Tactical Plan: Send runners through, not to, Zone 14
TFC's defense hasn't been quite as good as Seattle's during the second half of the season, but over the entire course of the year they conceded just 37 goals, and now just two in four playoff games. They will lock you down.
Part of that is the ability to make Zone 14 – the area in the middle of the field 18-to-35 yards from goal where playmakers love to set up shop – a dead zone. They allow little possession there and fewer assists out of that spot than any team in the league save for Sporting KC (who have made an art out of destroying that part of the pitch).
You can't just hold the ball there against them, and if there's one thing the Seattle attack has been guilty of most of the season it's holding onto the ball too long in good spots. They are often inventive, but just as often they are more static than they should be. TFC will put the clamps on a static attack.
This, my friends, is not static:
Those are a lot of quick touches and purposeful, mis-directed runs – most especially from the goalscorer, Victor Rodriguez (who probably won't even start this game).
The Sounders have to have attackers constantly flitting into, out of and through Zone 14. The goal is to overwhelm Michael Bradley, who plays as a solo d-mid, and force the Reds into an all-out scramble.
Nobody's really accomplished that this year. Not yet, anyway.
X-Factor No. 1: Penalties
TFC are awful from the spot this year. Altidore was 3/5 and Giovinco 1/3 (I feel like Giovinco has a better conversion rate on his free kicks). Victor Vazquez was 3/3 during the regular season, then biffed one last week against Columbus in the Eastern Conference Championship.
This is a clear advantage for the Sounders.
X-Factor No. 2: The Wide Fight
TFC got their wingbacks so far forward in last year's final that they basically enveloped Seattle and didn't allow the Sounders to push anything upfield. They then used that blueprint throughout most of 2017, and it led to a deserved Best XI season from Justin Morrow.
As pinned back as Seattle were, though, they never let Morrow or right wingback Steven Beitashour create meaningful off-the-ball penetration, so they never got stretched out wide.
The Sounders are better equipped to deal with that this season – right back Kelvin Leerdam has been outstanding since his arrival – and are a threat to push forward themselves if either of the Toronto wingbacks push too far up. It will be mostly a very linear battle in those spots, but it's also a chess match.
X-Factor No. 3: Selling out to stop Bradley
The Red Bulls did it a month ago and won at BMO in large part because of it. Columbus did it in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship and grabbed a very credible 0-0 draw that could/should have been more with even average finishing.
Brian Schmetzer, by his nature, isn't much of a tinkerer. He has his team out there in a 4-2-3-1 about 99% of the time, and that can mean opposing deep-lying distributors get a bunch of time and space to dictate the flow of the game if the guy in the middle of the "3" isn't really, really engaged defensively.
If the first 20 minutes of this game are ugly for the Rave Green, with Bradley pinging long diagonals, constantly moving the zones and getting those deadly TFC attackers into good spots, Schmetzer may have to make an adjustment.
Lodeiro's a playmaker whose starting points are usually on the wing, which makes him difficult to keep track of. It will definitely have to be a group effort from the Reds, but Delgado in particular is asked less to handle a specific zone and more to shadow specific assignments. Expect him to shade toward Lodeiro and gum up the passing lanes the Uruguayan maestro uses to control the game.
It's Moor's job, more than anyone else's, to organize the TFC backline. And it's Dempsey who, more than anyone else in the league, is adept at finding the pockets of space that flit in and out of existence during open play.
Deuce starts this play a step ahead of the Vancouver backline, then lets them jus run away from him:
Nobody on TFC can let that happen, obviously. But it's Moor who's got to be loud and clear in organizing the team around him.
What's it all mean?
I honestly don't have a gut feeling about this game one way or the other, and have been able to talk myself into literally any scenario (Sounders commanding win; TFC commanding win; reprise of last year's scoreless draw) save for a high-scoring draw. With all due respect to Seattle, if Giovinco's on, then they're probably cooked. With all due respect to TFC, they haven't looked like the league favorites for more than two months. With all due respect to both, nobody wants to see another 0-0 game.
So I just don't know. But as we've inched closer and closer to the game itself, I've become more and more fixated on recent form. TFC have been mediocre and Seattle have been dominant, and to me... that's enough. I think the Sounders go back-to-back.