When you want to beat LAFC, you have to get everything right. The Seattle Sounders got everything right in their 3-1 win at Banc of California Stadium on Tuesday night in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoff Western Conference Final. Here were their five steps to victory.
Step 1: Go for it early
LAFC take time to settle into a game. They play with a more cerebral than combative mindset. As a result, it takes them about 30 minutes to match the opponent's energy level. If you press and get close to them, they will cough up chances. Seattle pressed; Seattle roughed them up (it seemed like there were instructions to take a foul every time LAFC got a step); Seattle got chances.
Step 2: Finish the chances!
Step 3: Keep the lines extremely tight
This was the first of the two great moves from Brian Schmetzer on the night. Most teams have stayed compact against LAFC by dropping deep. The Sounders kept a relatively high line, a few yards in front of midfield. To stay tight, their back four squeezed forward, as well. That's normally a risk in itself, but it wasn't on Tuesday night. LAFC didn't have anyone to run behind.
This is where Bob Bradley could have adjusted. He used his wide players, Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez, as pure wingers. They stayed on the touchline and looked to receive the ball to feet and run at defenders 1v1. Rossi had spent most of the year as a wide forward, tasked with running behind an opponent's backline. With Carlos Vela playing as the center striker, LAFC needed Rossi to stretch the field on Tuesday night. Without someone to stretch the field, LAFC struggled to find space...although that's also in partly because Seattle nailed the next part.
Step 4: Clog the middle
This is the second detail that Schmetzer got right. The Sounders kept their wingers, Jordan Morris and Joevin Jones, tight to the center midfielders. Seattle made it very clear: we want LAFC to go around us. Then as soon as LAFC played their wingers, Seattle's wide players dropped at angles to keep the block behind the ball. Rossi and Rodriguez always had two layers to beat. In effect, the only players on LAFC who found time or space were the outside backs; if you want anyone on LAFC to have time and space — and you always have to pick your poison — you want it to be the outside backs.
From there, Seattle did a great job of keeping the ball to one side. The visitors didn't always get pressure on the ball in wide areas, but they kept LAFC locked into one side. Seattle could read the game and block lanes. Lodeiro, in particular, was fantastic at reading angles to cut the field in half.
Step 5: Survive
Every tactical plan comes down to mental focus. If you don't stay engaged for 90 minutes, the plan won't work.
This Sounders team would surely rather have the ball and play as the attacking team. It's not natural for them to have to focus on defensive discipline more than attacking creativity. They put those desires aside to do what needed to be done on Tuesday night. They were selfless and disciplined. They stuck to their duties and won their tackles.
It was a hugely impressive performance from both the coaching staff and the players on the field. I've doubted the Sounders for three years now. It led Brian Schmetzer after the game to share his opinion on my skepticism when ESPN's Sebastian Salazar asked him what they did to upset LAFC. Schmetzer responded, "I'll let Bobby Warshaw tell me I we did it."
It's a totally fair dig from the Seattle boss. Schmetzer and his team have baffled me. Through my inability to put their performances to words, they've continued to win. Results speak louder than any column or podcast. The Sounders' record speak for itself.
The Seattle Sounders are onto their third MLS Cup appearance in four years.