There are a number of old cliches about sticking with what you know. One is "dance with the girl who brung ya," and another is "old shoes are comfortable." However you want to slice it, the idea is the same: You're supposed to rely upon what you've always relied upon.
Both Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney and Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer flouted that conventional wisdom in the 2017 MLS Cup, and in the end, the right idea was to bet on Red, because Vanney's changes paved the way for a dominant, 2-0 TFC victory while Schmetzer's gamble put Seattle behind the 8-ball from the first kick.
Gamble No. 1: The Most Attacking Lineup
Schmetzer said in his postgame that the XI he put out on the field was the most attacking group he could muster, and in theory it is. The one significant change was shifting Joevin Jones from left wing (where he's been playing for the last few months) to left back (where he started the year), and in the process dropping Nouhou Tolo and adding Victor Rodriguez.
In theory I get it. In practice, however, it was a disaster, as Jones' propensity toward forgetfulness and a habitual inattentiveness to the space behind him constantly invited Toronto forward. It was as if they saw he was at left back and immediately said "that's the spot we're gonna hit."
And so they hit it repeatedly. Only a monstrous performance from Stefan Frei prevented this game from getting blown wide open in the first 30 minutes, and – all due respect to Schmetzer, whose body of work over the last 18 months speaks for itself, and to Jones, who is a quality player with a good future – at no point did dropping Jones to left back look like the right choice.
It wasn't just defensively, either. Jones, when he plays on the wing, literally plays on the wing. Rodriguez, on the other hand, is much more comfortable drifting inside and trying to create tight and intricate sequences of play.
Turns out TFC were ready for that.
Gamble No. 2: Diamonds Are For Now
It was at least a little bit shocking to see TFC move away from the 3-5-2 that was their default formation in this remarkable season, but it turned out to be absolutely the right choice in part because the 4-4-2 diamond's inherent weakness wasn't going to get exposed by a team that lacked width. So instead of pulling TFC apart, both Rodriguez and Nicolas Lodeiro – each an inverted winger who's more of a wide playmaker – were repeatedly funneled into the Toronto trio of Marky Delgado, Jonathan Osorio and the indomitable Michael Bradley.
Michael Bradley was Man of the Match in #TORvSEA: 91 touches, 64/70 (91.4%) passing, 3/6 long balls, 2 shots, 6 tackles, 6 clearances, 4 interceptions, 7/12 duels won, 12 recoveries. Best player in 2017 #MLSCupPlayoffs, tremendous in #MLSCup Final. Captain. #TFC #TFCLivepic.twitter.com/pOS6ri9ZSS— Jasoninho (@JogaBonito77) December 10, 2017
The numbers from Osorio and Delgado were nearly as impressive, and all of it passed the eye test. TFC weren't completing "empty" passes, they were methodically and ruthlessly ripping the Seattle midfield apart and forcing them to chase shadows. They won this game and completed the first domestic treble in league history by playing beautiful, flowing, irresistible soccer against a team that hadn't given up a goal in a month-and-a-half while at the same time strangling the life out of Seattle's attack.
Here's what "chasing shadows" looks like on the game-winning goal, courtesy of MLS Cup MVP Jozy Altidore:
The sloppy turnover characterized the play of Lodeiro and Clint Dempsey, and the flowing move upfield… neither Gustav Svensson nor Cristian Roldan even got close to pressuring the ball, and the one time Chad Marshall stepped a little bit too late, he got burned.
This was the best team in MLS history in full flight, and they proved themselves worthy champions three-times over. There will be celebrations in The 6 tonight, and they will be completely, totally deserved.
A few more notes...
4. We've seen that finish from Altidore at least three times this year. Once tonight, once against Costa Rica in the Gold Cup (he scored it), and once against the Ticos in World Cup qualifying, which coaxed an insane save out of Keylor Navas.
3. Last year after MLS Cup, TFC – to a man – said "we need to get more creative in central midfield. Enter Victor Vazquez, and the TFC front office should take a group bow for getting such a quality player on a non-DP contract.
2. If Schmetzer was going to tinker, he probably should have considered pushing Roldan upfield and having him sit in Bradley's lap and make his life miserable, a la Tyler Adams for the Red Bulls in their 1-0 win at BMO Field in the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The big mistake from Seattle was letting Bradley control the game, because when the Reds do that they are nearly unbeatable.
1. Both these teams will see their windows of contention stay open at least one more year, though given the strength of the East I actually think it's the Sounders who have a better chance of making it three straight MLS Cup appearances.
TFC can worry about that tomorrow, though. Tonight, they have champagne to drink.