EDITOR'S NOTE: Ex-US national teamer Benny Feilhaber, a midfielder for Sporting Kansas City, joins MLSsoccer.com as a guest columnist throughout the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs. Feilhaber has played in a World Cup and Olympics and he has won an MLS Cup, a Gold Cup and two Open Cups. Now he's winning at media, too, as co-host of the popular BS The Podcast.
I don’t know how many people were expecting this MLS Cup final, but it seems we’ve seen this one somewhere before.
Here's what I think each team will look to do in order to win the ultimate prize and avoid a long, regret-filled offseason:
Toronto have been the most fascinating story of these MLS Cup Playoffs.
They have missed Jozy Altidore the entire postseason run and haven’t had Omar Gonzalez play any minutes yet. First thing they need to figure out is whether those two will play a part in this final. It seems unlikely that Vanney changes anything in his starting lineup, but both could be vital as super subs.
Toronto will love having the “underdog” tag placed on them and they will try play with two distinct groups of five: The back four along with Michael Bradley will try to slow down the potent Seattle attack. Meanwhile, Alejandro Pozuelo, as their "false 9," will look to come into pockets in the midfield and link up with the other attacking foursome.
TFC need to do a better job at limiting the space in behind their backline. In the first half of the Conference Final in Atlanta, too many direct balls found late runners on breakaways. Laurent Ciman and Chris Mavinga can’t allow Jordan Morris to find that space, and they need to find a way to allow Bradley the liberty to operate in the midfield as opposed to even with the backline.
A huge point of emphasis for Toronto during this postseason run has been Vanney’s uncanny ability to make the right substitutions. Nick DeLeon and Richie Laryea have been the unlikely heroes with two game-winners and a "drawn penalty kick winner" between them. I see them as being pivotal again as game-changers off the bench.
Seattle always seem to find themselves in this position. Although they didn't have the greatest regular season, they know how to win the big games and they do just enough to give themselves a couple of home games in the playoffs.
That being said, they put together some performance against LAFC in the Conference Final. No one gave them much of a chance (including this know it all!) and Seattle promptly clogged the midfield, made it a battle for the entire 90 minutes and they proved incredibly clinical with their chances on goal.
Their plan for MLS Cup needs to be similar with minor deviations.
Seattle will look to control possession a bit more than against LAFC, but not at the expense of making the game a back-and-forth affair. They want to keep the game compact and even allow Toronto to feel comfortable at times with the ball so they can hit them on the break with their pace and precision.
What the Sounders absolutely cannot allow to happen is a wide open game (a la Round 1 against FC Dallas), where they allow too much space in between their lines. They are not effective at protecting their goal when their midfield is not well connected to their backline. Seattle don’t have Chad Marshall back there to put out fires and they have real deficiencies when Cristian Roldan and Gustav Svensson aren’t close by to serve as back-up center backs.
Credit to Sounders manager Brian Schmetzer who has also been pushing all the right buttons so far.
His biggest merit so far has been identifying how strong Svensson and Roldan can be when paired together in the middle of the park. Those two are pitbulls and the more compact the space between them and center backs Kim Kee-hee and Xavier Arreaga (or Roman Torres), the more efficient they can be.
Similar to how Carlos Vela acted as a "false 9" for LAFC, Pozuelo will try to make himself available all over the field. If Svensson and Roldan are up to the task of tracking him, Seattle will give themselves a huge chance to raise MLS Cup in front of the home crowd.
Look, I managed to get both conference finals predictions wrong. But I still feel obliged to make a pick for this game, so I'll do so reluctantly: With 51 percent certainty, I pick Seattle to win in penalty kicks after a 1-1 result through 120 minutes. Either way it turns out, I can (safely?) predict that it should be one heck of a rubber match.