LOS ANGELES – All season long, teams have been trying to figure out how to accomplish what the Seattle Sounders did on Tuesday night.
Playing in the Western Conference Final of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs against LAFC at Banc of California Stadium, the Sounders were tasked with slowing down the most lethal attack MLS has ever seen. Namely, they produced 85 goals across the regular season and boasts Carlos Vela, who, statistically speaking, just had the most jaw-dropping single season in league history.
Few thought Seattle would hold a juggernaut like that to a single goal. But they did exactly that, lodging the defensive shift of a lifetime that saw them concede just one free-kick tally to Eduard Atuesta. That was more than enough, as Raul Ruidiaz scored twice and Nicolas Lodeiro added another, sending Seattle to a 3-1 victory and their third MLS Cup in four years.
“Look, we wanted to push LAFC into the areas where they were less effective,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “So that was the entire game plan, [it] was to see if we could slow down their attack. On the attacking side, we knew we could create chances against this team. We knew we could. They take many risks when they defend, their counter-press, they take risks. It’s a chain reaction. One guy presses, the next guy has to go, the next guy has to go.
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“Our guys were well-coached. They did exactly what we needed to do to get into their half of the field and create very good chances.”
Stefan Frei, who also had a standout shift at goalkeeper, expressed a similar sentiment when he was interviewed in the raucous, champagne-soaked visiting locker room after the match.
While LAFC’s attack has remained a force to be reckoned with, they endured a 1-1-5 stretch near the end of the season and were defeated, 2-0, at home by Minnesota United on Sept. 2. Then in the Western Conference Semifinal against the LA Galaxy, they yielded three goals in a 5-3 victory.
The plan on Tuesday, Frei said, was not to come in and bunker, pray for a clean sheet, and squeak in one goal on the counter. Rather, it was to exploit LAFC’s high-pressing style and create their own looks in the attack.
“I think you have to realize, their high-press leaves them vulnerable,” Frei said. “And yes, we don’t have the tallest guys up top, but I thought Raul challenged really well for a couple balls against some larger center backs to really get clean possession back.”
As a jubilant Cristian Roldan pointed out, the effort didn’t come down to simply the backline and Frei. Ruidiaz, known primarily as a goalscorer, put in more than his share of defensive work. There might not be a player in MLS who puts in more work on both sides of the ball than Lodeiro, who was in vintage form in the match, buzzing all over the field and hounding LAFC’s attackers.
In the end, a trip to another MLS Cup was Seattle’s reward.
“We made them go outside, doubled down as much as possible,” Roldan said. “Put pressure whenever we could when they wanted to deliver a ball. Then, obviously, stop Vela. Double down, like I said, whenever we get the chance. I thought from top to bottom our guys put in a shift.”
Added winger Jordan Morris: “I thought that was one of the best defensive performances we’ve put in in a really long time. Everyone on the field. Starting with Raul getting back, Nico and obviously the defenders doing a great job as well and Stef, of course.
“I think that was our biggest win on the day, was our defensive performance."