Despite both carrying the tag of an underdog going into the conference finals, Seattle Sounders will host Toronto FC in MLS Cup at CenturyLink Field on Nov. 10. But how did Seattle and Toronto upset Supporters' Shield winners LAFC and defending MLS Cup champs Atlanta United, respectively, to set up a third MLS Cup matchup between the pair in four years? And what will happen when the two renew acquaintances in 10 days' time? MLSsoccer.com's Matt Doyle and Bobby Warshaw break it down in this early preview of the big game.
Matt Doyle: So... did we all undervalue “experience” here? Is that what happened? Because looking back, the signs were there that both of these teams would know how to get the job done in a postseason rock fight.
Bobby Warshaw: If you want to start there... No.
We didn't pick Seattle because they aren't as good as LAFC and there wasn't much sample to suggest they could adjust to hang with a team that had been 16 points better than them in the regular season.
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Those are two logical, smart reasons. Both games were upsets. They were well deserved, intelligently crafted, completely earned upsets and they represent something that makes this sport and (potentially) this playoff format great. But no, you didn't miss anything in the preview analysis.
MD: Maybe. I still think that’s a little generous to LAFC’s central midfield, which played soft and slow – same as they did last year without Mark-Anthony Kaye. It was a reprise of all their 2018 failings, and the Sounders were smart and disciplined enough to capitalize.
I think I agree with you on Jozy and Omar, though. Atlanta gave that game away because, over the course of the season, they never really developed a consistent method of applying pressure with the ball and using their talent to take teams apart. Toronto were totally comfortable waiting them out and knowing they’d get one or two chances to punish a mistake. Which they did.
BW: The LAFC vs. Seattle midfield thing is super interesting. There are a lot of ways to talk about players. Who is more talented? Who has been playing better recently? Who is the better overall player?
They are all fun conversations, but they all probably pale to this one: Who can hang in the toughest, most important games? We hear some version of it all the time: As you go up levels, the pace gets quicker and you don’t know who can hang until you find out. And sometimes the most talented, most in-form players aren’t as effective as the stakes go up; they aren’t the same player when the game gets harder.
Nico Lodeiro, Gustav Svensson and (in a weird way that’s hard to contextualize given his USMNT form) Cristian Roldan were absolutely amazing on Tuesday night. Every time the ball got near them and they had to make a play, they made a good play. You could put Michael Bradley in this category, as well; for whatever you think about Bradley as a player at this point, he did a lot of good things against Atlanta, he’s probably a guy you want/need when a game gets weird.
Should this have been enough for Seattle or Toronto to pull upsets? No. But it’s interesting and I wanted to say it. So back to the MLS Cup preview now.
MD: Bradley did a lot of good things against Atlanta after the first 30 minutes. He was an absolute sieve to start the game, though – it was jarring.
But I guess that’s the thing about experience and chemistry, both of which TFC have in spades: If you have enough reps together you can trust the guys next to you and the guy on the sidelines to figure things out on the fly. Which, of course, is exactly what the Reds did.
They started the game in a 4-3-3 with a false nine and a high line, switched to a 4-1-4-1 in kind of a mid-block, opened the second half in a 3-5-2 with a low block, changed to a 5-4-1 with a higher line and finished in a 4-3-3 with a true No. 9, a playmaker on the wing and playing on the counter.
I can think of exactly one team in MLS history who could’ve cycled through all those shapes, lines and formations over the course of a single game without completely losing cohesion. The fact that they did so on the road without two of their four most important players, and got a playoff win against a team featuring a $40 million attack… honestly, that TFC result is remarkable.
But then again, maybe not? They’re 24-7-7 in tournament play since the start of the 2016 season. As long as it doesn’t go to PKs, they’re killers.
All that said: Obviously in the final, with these two teams, there’s no perceptible on-the-job know-how gap. It should come down to who’s able to play better soccer, right?
BW: Seattle and Toronto both made MLS Cup by playing against the ball, with their defensive strategy as the main tenet of their game plan. They had to fight harder and be more defensively diligent than the opponent to win.
That’s not who these teams are at their core, though. Brian Schmetzer and Greg Vanney would both rather have the ball and play attacking soccer. Both teams sucked up their pride and did what they needed to do en route to the end goal.
It also seems like both teams will be at full strength, have tons of confidence and have reason to believe they can out-soccer the other one.
Going into Seattle’s game with LAFC, I said the Sounders needed to be scared. Being scared will make you make smarter tactical decisions. It worked!
Looking back at the last two times these teams met in Cup:
2016: Toronto were good but not yet amazing and tried to play as the aggressor and Seattle, who didn’t mind playing on the counter, surprised them at BMO.
2017: Toronto were awesome all year and had no problem playing as the aggressor and totally dominated the game.
Both of these teams, even at full strength, feel closer to the “good” than “awesome” category right now, and I worry that attempting to control the ball would be a fool’s errand.
Sadly, I’d say that whichever team is more humble going into the final, and accepts that they need to be the grind-it-out team will have the advantage.
MD: I think that’s right, though I can’t help but recall that playoff opener against FC Dallas for the Sounders. They weren’t grinding down anything in that one (other than maybe Stefan Frei’s will to live). I do wonder if the urge to entertain their home crowd – throw those fullbacks forward, pull the wingers inside, knock the ball around like they can when they’re at their best – will just naturally push them into taking more risks.
And it’s worth remembering the last two times these teams met in MLS Cup. Toronto FC dominated both games by getting on the ball and playing flowing, expansive, downright pretty soccer. It’s hard not to at least try to do that at home, so I think the Sounders will feel some pressure (maybe just subconsciously, but it’ll be there) to come out and play.
At least, as a neutral, I hope that’s how it plays out. One of these teams has got to be the protagonist.