Scouting report: How Sounders can beat Toronto in MLS Cup final

Dec 8, 2016, 12:51 PM

Toronto FC is led by Sebastian Giovinco, likely the best current player in all of the MLS. (AP)...

Toronto FC is led by Sebastian Giovinco, likely the best current player in all of the MLS. (AP)


For the Seattle Sounders’ 2016 playoff run so far, their foes have mostly been teams that they know quiet well. For example, they played FC Dallas near the end of the season and were more than familiar with their fellow Western Conference club’s style, tactics, and players when they met in Western Conference semifinals. But because the MLS Cup final pits the best team from each side of the league, the teams won’t be as familiar with each other, especially considering that both the Sounders and Toronto FC are relatively recent expansion clubs. Since joining the league in 2009, the Sounders have faced Toronto FC 10 times, with a 7-2-1 record.

In their lone regular season matchup in 2016, Seattle drew 1-1 at Toronto in early July. There’s not too much to glean from that particular match, as both teams’ starting lineups will look vastly different on Saturday. The Sounders have Nicolas Lodeiro and Roman Torres this time around, and Toronto will have Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.

Davis: Five key moments that led Sounders to MLS Cup final

So who are Toronto FC right now, and what can fans expect on Saturday?

TFC finished the 2016 regular season in third place in the Eastern Conference with a 14-9-11 record. For all its attacking prowess, it actually scored the second-fewest goals (51) out of the six playoff teams in the East. Its potency at home was also a bit overrated in the regular season, as its 8-3-6 record at BMO Field is pretty average compared to the rest of the teams in the conference.

The Canadian club’s path to the MLS Cup final started with a 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union in the first knockout round, with both Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco scoring goals. The Eastern Conference semifinals were a much more lopsided affair, with Toronto winning both legs against New York City FC by a combined score of 7-0. Compared to that blowout, the conference finals were quite the exciting affair. Montreal Impact barely held onto an early lead in the first leg to finish it 3-2 to the home side. Toronto came out flying at home in the second leg, but only managed to tie up the score on aggregate after regulation. Extra time was what Toronto needed, as the home team scored two in the first 15-minute period to book its ticket to the final.

Here’s TFC at a glance:

Tactics: Head coach Greg Vanney has been quite fond of the 3-5-2 formation lately, using Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow as wing-backs and stacking the midfield in order to congest opposing attacks. Vanney has found the best way to get his two top strikers as involved in attacks as much as possible, though Giovinco often drops deep to play more creatively if the central midfielders aren’t making it happen.

Strengths: I don’t think it even needs to be said, but: Sebastian Giovinco. Robbed of the MLS MVP award this year, Giovinco is probably the best player in the entire league. In fact, he’s probably one of the best players to have ever played in the league. He scored 21 goals and had a whopping 16 assists in 2016, showing that he’s not only a scoring threat but that his creativity also makes his teammates more dangerous. And despite being overshadowed by his strike partner, Jozy Altidore is almost as important as Giovinco. The USMNT veteran is big, strong, and has technique with his feet not always associated with big forwards like him. He’ll be matched up against two hulking defenders in Seattle’s Chad Marshall and Roman Torres, who will have to make the big decisions regarding how to defend both of Toronto’s strikers.

Weaknesses: Even though Toronto allowed the fewest goals out of all the Eastern Conference playoff teams, the goals it conceded to Montreal in the conference finals highlighted some of its biggest weaknesses. The three center back system works for a lot of reasons, especially against teams that focus on scoring with big forwards. The Sounders probably won’t be able to get much out of Nelson Valdez because of this, but it will help Jordan Morris split the lines between the center backs and wing backs, just like Dominic Oduro did with his goal for Montreal in the first leg of the conference finals.

How can the Sounders beat Toronto and take home their first MLS Cup?

It won’t be easy, but dominating midfield and keeping the ball away from Giovinco as much as possible is the only way the Sounders will have a shot at keeping the ball out of Stefan Frei’s net. If the defense can play tight to Altidore and play smart with Giovinco, Seattle will be able to stop that fierce attack. On the other side, Lodeiro will need to find and maximize every inch of space he finds on the BMO Field pitch. He’ll need to use his vision to find the perfect ball to release Morris into the space between the center backs and wing backs. Those chances might not come often, so he must take advantage of every single one.

Spenser Davis also covers the Sounders for Sounder at Heart.

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Scouting report: How Sounders can beat Toronto in MLS Cup final