Three keys: Sounders seek first MLS Cup title vs Toronto FC

Dec 8, 2016, 5:31 PM
Tactics will play an important part in the MLS Cup championship for the Sounders. (AP)...
Tactics will play an important part in the MLS Cup championship for the Sounders. (AP)

As the Sounders’ very first MLS Cup final is nearly upon us, it’s time to look at the three things most likely to determine whether or not they can bring home that trophy. We looked at how and why the Sounders got this far despite their horrendous start to the season, and we looked at Toronto FC and their fierce strike duo. But when the Sounders step out onto the chilly BMO Field pitch, where it could be in the 20-degree range, what’s going to happen?

Here are those three keys when the Sounders face Toronto FC at 5 p.m. Saturday at 5 p.m. on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM in the 2016 MLS Cup Final:

1. The atmosphere will be good, but it won’t affect the Sounders.

Toronto FC has enjoyed pretty solid home support since joining MLS in 2007, just two years before the Sounders. Now that the team has finally started to see good results in the last couple of seasons, its home atmosphere has only improved. For some teams this might be intimidating, and many pundits are pointing to this as a top reason that the Sounders won’t win. But BMO Field’s maximum capacity is less than the Sounders’ average home attendance, meaning that even if the stadium is loud and full-on Saturday, it can’t compare to what the Sounders see every single week. Besides, since Brian Schmetzer took over, the Sounders’ road record has been pretty good: 3-2-2 with a plus-2 goal differential. Toronto has had a good, if not great, home record in that same span: 4-3-2, with a plus-6 goal differential.

2. Tactics could play a big part in this one.

I mentioned in my scouting report that Toronto head coach Greg Vanney has been playing his team in a 3-5-2 formation as of late, meaning three center backs, five midfielders, and two forwards. Two of the midfielders, usually Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour, play as wing backs, shuttling all the way up and down the flanks. In the first leg of the conference finals against Montreal Impact, miscommunication and individual errors allowed Dominic Oduro to slip between the defenders and wing backs and open the scoring for Montreal. Vanney will obviously be drilling the tactical nuances into his players, but it still means that Toronto is vulnerable when the cracks in its tactics start to show. Schmetzer will undoubtedly play his team in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The only time he’s truly wavered from it, at Vancouver, his team was dominated until he switched it back. We might see Jordan Morris playing on the left, depending on whether or not Andreas Ivanschitz is OK to start or not. Whether Morris is on the left or the right, it should allow Nelson Valdez to distract the experienced Drew Moor in the middle. Nicolas Lodeiro’s creative passing will hopefully give Morris opportunities to slip in past one of the lesser experienced center backs outside of Moor, and if he latches onto one, we all know what he’s capable of doing. Seattle’s defense will also have to be very prepared for Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore; the former needs to be isolated and without the ball as much as possible, while the latter should be marked tightly by Roman Torres or Chad Marshall. Neither player can be left alone, and Giovinco especially can leave a defender in the dust in an instant. Schmetzer must do everything he can to prepare his defense for the best player in the league.

3. Can the Sounders’ central midfield duo deal with the mismatch?

One of the advantages to facing a team in a 3-5-2 formation is that it’s very vulnerable to counter-attacking teams, which is why Montreal had Toronto on the ropes for so long in the Eastern finals. One disadvantage, though, is that it can be overwhelming to the central midfielders at times. Toronto has three central midfielders, led by captain Michael Bradley, that operate in different ways in the area. The Sounders sometimes drop into a three-man midfield, but it often means that Lodeiro is being forced to drop deep. Even when it’s just captain Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan in the Sounders’ central midfield, they form a powerful duo that’s become one of the best combos in all of MLS this season. Roldan has learned immensely from the very experienced Alonso, and the way they play together has been very good as of late. Armando Cooper, the more creative and technical of Toronto’s midfielders, shouldn’t be too hard to contain, which will be necessary in stifling Giovinco. Former Timbers player Will Johnson is the grittiest of Toronto’s trio, something the Sounders are all too familiar with from his time in Portland. If anyone on the Toronto team is likely to see red in this match, it’s Johnson. He’ll be tackling and kicking his way through 90 minutes, and Lodeiro in particular will need to watch his back. Either way, I think Seattle’s duo can cope with Toronto’s trio, but it will be a tough one. Alonso has been with this team since the beginning, and he’ll need to play one of the best matches of his career on Saturday.

Spenser Davis also covers the Sounders for Sounder at Heart.

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