Armchair Analyst: Tactical preview of Seattle Sounders vs Toronto FC in MLS Cup

Another year, another journey to The Big Game. The Seattle Sounders host Toronto FC on Sunday in the 2019 MLS Cup (3 pm ET | ABC, Univision, TUDN in US; TSN, TVAS in Canada).

Thanks for reading all year. Now, let's dive in:

Seattle's Tactical Plan

Overload the left side

Seattle scored 52 goals this year, which was middling, and they conceded 49 goals, which was also middling. It adds up (stay with me here) to a plus-3 goal differential, which is pretty meh. Those aren't the numbers of an overwhelming MLS Cup favorite.

But the Sounders are indeed overwhelming MLS Cup favorites because those numbers don't tell the full story. The full story is that this 2019 season was uniquely challenging for Seattle in terms of injuries, retirements, international call-ups, suspensions, returns from injury and more on down the list. You name it – letting the best d-mid in MLS history walk in the offseason? Watching the best center back in MLS history retire two months in? Seeing your star No. 9 suffer through the yips for entire months? A PED suspension? – and the Sounders have dealt with it this year.

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And I'm not sure exactly where it's brought them from a tactical perspective. Sometimes they look like a team that really is at its best when they sit in, absorb, and then hit opportunistically, which was the plan in the 3-1 Conference Final win at LAFC:

That, however, was on the road against the best regular-season team in MLS history. They'd have been stupid to go out there and try to play any other way.

Other times – almost always at home – Seattle have been at their best by getting on the ball and being the protagonists, even against some of the best teams in the league. They have skill and know-how through central midfield, and use that to start stringing together short (but useful) passes and settle into a rhythm. Once they get into that rhythm, they start throwing caution to the wind with regard to how they use their fullbacks, particularly on that left side.

Ask any Sounders fan and they'll tell you that the team has looked at its best when Nico Lodeiro is commanding things through the middle, then drifting out to the left to combine with left back Brad Smith and whoever happens to be the left winger on the day (almost certainly Jordan Morris on Sunday). Typically, the point of an overload is to drag the entire opposing defense to that side, then switch the field of play into open space and take advantage of the running room.

Not Seattle. When they overload, they actually like to just keep hammering away at one side. Lodeiro eventually plays Smith or the winger through the lines toward the edge of the box, at which points they look either for a cross rolled across the six or pulled back toward the top of the box.

The Sounders can and have beaten teams just about every other way throughout the second half of the season. But in front of 70,000 fans at home in MLS Cup, I suspect they're going to want to show that they can ball out a little bit. They're not just counterpunchers.

Toronto's Tactical Plan

Shape-shift into something that works

I think it's entirely fair to say that Greg Vanney has created the most flexible team in MLS history. Remember back to 2016, when they scuffled along through the year before hitting on a 3-5-2 and then blitzed through the playoffs before finally losing to a bunkered-in Sounders in MLS Cup? Well, the following year they produced the best season ever... then Vanney actually scrapped the 3-5-2 for a 4-4-2 diamond in that year's MLS Cup, and the Seattle bunkered got busted down.

Fast forward to this year and Toronto wanted to switch to a 4-3-3 after the departure of Sebastian Giovinco. But with injuries, overwork, international call-ups and an initial lack of wingers, Vanney had to tinker with anything and everything throughout the season. What he hit upon down the stretch was a 4-3-3 with playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo as a false 9, usually trying to play on the front foot and with the ball:

With Jozy Altidore almost certainly not starting this one, it seems likely that TFC will once again come out at the kick with a funky false 9 look, one that asks the wingers to dive inside and create goal-dangerous penetration as Pozuelo drifts off the line and into midfield to become a playmaker.

There are zero guarantees it'll finish like that, though. Against Atlanta United in the Eastern Conference Final, they started in a 4-3-3 with a false 9, then switched to a 3-5-2 at halftime, then a 5-4-1 by the 55th minute or so, and eventually into a 4-3-3 with a true No. 9 and Pozuelo as a playmaking winger. The Reds can throw literally any of those looks out there and be at least reasonably competent.

What I don't think they can do is play a high line. No matter what the formation is, I'd look for the Reds to stay in something close to a low block and just try to wear the Sounders down.

X-Factor No. 1

Backline Chemistry

Both these teams are weirdly unsettled at the back at the moment. For Seattle, it's a straight-up "who do you choose?" question facing Brian Schmetzer. Roman Torres, the veteran, is expected to be healthy and available and when he's been those two things, he's generally been preferred to Xavier Arreaga, the newcomer.

But Arreaga was awesome vs. LAFC and seemed to have an intrinsic understanding of playoff soccer (he was pretty, pretty physical!), as well as playoff officiating. Breaking up the partnership between the Ecuadorian and Kim Kee-Hee seems unlikely to me.

On the other side of the field, Laurent Ciman had a miserable regular season but has been much, much better in the playoffs. Still, it's hard to imagine that he'll keep his place ahead of Omar Gonzalez, who's expected to be fully fit by Sunday after missing the entire playoffs with a hamstring strain. When Gonzalez arrived midseason, he slotted right into the lineup and solidified a previously leaky defense, so there's plenty of precedent for just going plug-and-play. If it's any kind of back four from Vanney, I think we'll see Gonzalez next to Chris Mavinga.

But I'm not entirely convinced that it'll be a back four. I've got a sneaking suspicion TFC will come out in a 5-3-2 that puts Omar in the middle, Ciman on the right and Mavinga on the left.

X-Factor No. 2

Super-subs

Victor Rodriguez is healthy and expected to be available for the Sounders on Sunday. When he comes in as an inverted left winger, it sort of turbo-charges that left-side overload, because he can function either as a winger off the ball or as slip-pass playing No. 10 on the ball. It also frees up Morris to flip over to the right side and be a more direct-to goal back-post poacher.

If Seattle must find a goal – or if they feel like they've rocked TFC back on their heels and are just looking to put the game away – this is the sub I expect Schmetzer to make. When Rodriguez and Lodeiro have been able to play together this year, it's made opponents almost completely reactive.

Vanney uses his subs to change tactics and formations... and to win games outright, as in their three playoff games, all three-match-winning moments have come from subs. Richie Laryea got the game-winning goal vs. D.C. United and drew the game-winning penalty vs. NYCFC, while Nick DeLeon provided a freaking thunderbolt to get the Reds past Atlanta:

Match-Up No. 1

Nicolas Lodeiro vs. Michael Bradley

Lodeiro remains the hardest No. 10 in the league to track because he can and will go anywhere, and he's entirely comfortable in any sort of situation. Does he need to be trailing the play in order to provide a 20-yard dagger, as he's done twice in these playoffs? Sure thing. Need him to sit deep, help win second balls, then spray to the wingers or overlapping fullbacks? Absolutely. Want him to drift into the half-spaces and find seams to hit through-balls? That's pretty much his favorite thing to do.

But what I expect him to be doing in this one is trying to find the half-spaces to either side of TFC regista Michael Bradley. The idea is to make Bradley chase and get him out of Zone 14, which will (in theory) expose the Toronto central defense.

Bradley has to work in sync with Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio to make sure that Lodeiro doesn't dominate this game.

Match-Up No. 2

Laryea vs. Smith

At some point, and out of one formation or another, Vanney's going to do what he can to get Lareya in a 1v1 situation with Smith for this express purpose:

That's it. There are going to be two or three times in the final 20 minutes that Smith – or Joevin Jones, or Nouhou Tolo – is going to have to defend Laryea in this situation. If they don't do it right, it ends up with TFC putting the ball into the back of the net one way or another.

What's it all mean?

Home teams are 6-for-8 in MLS Cups since 2011, and the Sounders have won 11 straight home games.

They stunk vs. FC Dallas, but they still scored four goals. They then strangled Real Salt Lake before going to downtown LA and executing the perfect game plan to expose the major flaw in the Supporters' Shield winners. They have three match-winners in attack, one in goal and one of the most solid central midfields in the league.

If Toronto were fully healthy and clicking, I'd probably pick the Reds here in spite of all of the above. Jozy is exactly that historically dominant in the playoffs, and I think an attack with him, Pozuelo, Jonathan Osorio and Nicolas Benezet would get it done against this Seattle backline. They'd be able to mimic what Dallas did, except with actual match-winning talent.

But if Jozy's any kind of healthy it's certainly not 90-minute healthy, and I think they'd need all of that to get past the Sounders. And they'd need an A+ version of Omar, which is, at the moment, unlikely.

So that leaves us here: Seattle are the slightly better and significantly healthier team, and are playing at home, and Toronto don't really have the speed to kill them on the break. They are 25-6-4 when Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz start together over the past two years, and by late Sunday afternoon, my guess is that'll be 26-6-4. TFC have too many questions, and Seattle, down the stretch and into the postseason, have had nothing but answers.

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