SEATTLE – Greg Vanney wouldn’t spring another MLS Cup surprise, would he?
Two years ago Toronto FC hosted the Seattle Sounders in the 2017 final, and the Reds’ head coach unveiled an unexpected change to his starting XI by shelving the 3-5-2 formation that TFC had used to dominate the league that season in favor of a 4-4-2 diamond midfield.
The new look helped an already-favored Toronto side impose themselves on the defending champs, laying the groundwork for a 2-0 victory at BMO Field that capped their historic treble campaign.
This time around the Sounders are hosting the big game (Sunday, 3 pm ET | ABC, Univision, TUDN, TVAS, TSN), and with TFC having showcased their tactical flexibility by utilizing a handful of different looks throughout the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, it’s been impossible for observers not to wonder whether Vanney is preparing another unexpected wrinkle.
“I think his ability to read the game, to tweak certain things around on given days depending on who we’re playing, depending on who’s on the field, that part has been such an important thing for us over the last few years,” TFC captain Michael Bradley said of his head coach on Friday.
“We have a group that understands how we can maybe tweak certain things on some days without it changing who we are, what we’re about and what we’re trying to do. It’s always a fine balance between tweaking a few things tactically to try to give yourself an advantage, but doing it in a way where you stay true to who you are, continue to play and compete in the ways that make you you. So I think the fact that we have a group that’s been together for a long time – and by group I mean players, coaches, staff – there’s a real comfort level in terms of how we do things and what we can all expect,” he added.
Does the fact that we’re discussing likely wrinkles here in fact make it entirely expected? And would that even matter to Vanney? Or, perhaps like the club’s cagey handling of Jozy Altidore’s injury status, this is all just meant to give Brian Schmetzer and the Sounders’ coaching staff a few more ideas to chew over in a sort of pregame shadowboxing, a chess-match-before-the-chess-match?
Vanney was asked about the possibility of such a trick on Thursday, and didn’t exactly deny it was on his mind.
“We’ve done a number of different things over the course of the season; even this group in the last game played a few different ways,” he said, alluding to the Eastern Conference Final upset of Atlanta United in which Toronto shape-shifted repeatedly during the run of play. “The only reason I would do anything is if I felt like it gave us an advantage in the game and that our players were ultimately comfortable with what that would look like. So we’ll see, but we’ve had a little time to prepare and we’ll see what comes out of it.”
What might a TFC November surprise look like? With Omar Gonzalez back to full health and his fellow center backs Chris Mavinga and Laurent Ciman in solid form, Vanney could bring back a 3-5-2 look to unleash his fullbacks Auro and Justin Morrow as wingbacks after using a 4-3-3 for most of this postseason, and perhaps provide Alejandro Pozuelo with a closer running partner up top.
For some coaches, departing from the familiar in a big moment can be a gamble too far, even a dangerous dereliction of identity. Yet it seems a bit different for Vanney and Toronto, who’ve had several extra days to prepare for this match – and made sure to spend as many of them as possible at home – should they wish to slip something up their proverbial sleeve.
“You want the players to be comfortable first and foremost and then you want them to understand the ideas and what you’re asking of them, and also to very much believe in them,” emphasized Vanney. “In 2017 we had that. When I initially sat down with them and said this is what we’re going to do, 100% of the players felt like it was the right move at the right time and were ready to do it. And they embraced it so quickly that we were able to slide right into it and be fluid in that.
“That’s why I like our group to be able to have some flexibility, because at the right moments we can do some things that maybe the opposition isn’t expecting and it throws them off for a little while.”