Seattle Did Enough to Limit an Effective Toronto FC Gameplan in MLS Cup

Posted By Harrison Hamm on November 11, 2019

The Seattle Sounders’ first goal was fluky. Kelvin Leerdam fizzed the ball across the 18-yard-box and hit Toronto FC left back Justin Morrow in the back, deflecting it past Quentin Westberg and putting them ahead in the second half. Leerdam was eventually given credit for the goal, but he clearly was not trying to score himself.

TFC never recovered. They didn’t dominate play to the extent that possession numbers might indicate. However, they played well enough to disrupt what Seattle were trying to do. Greg Vanney’s tactical set-up was effective. They re-pressed well, muddying the Sounders’ attempts at buildup and forcing turnovers high up the field. Michael Bradley navigated higher in midfield.

None of it was enough. Toronto never created a chance worth more than 0.17 xG, per Opta, and that didn’t even come until the 87th-minute. They lost 3-1, with substitute Victor Rodriguez doubling Seattle’s lead in the 76th-minute. 

How Seattle won MLS Cup

The Sounders won like they have for most of this postseason: they concentrated on finding opportunities to counter-attack, and set up in a disciplined defensive shape that minimized the effectiveness of TFC’s gameplan. When the opportunity to keep the ball presented itself, Seattle did not pass it up, and did well to release Jordan Morris and Brad Smith down the left flank. 

Brian Schmetzer is a pragmatic manager, and there is never anything too complicated about his 4-2-3-1 formation. Nicolas Lodeiro has license to do everything and go everywhere. Morris stays wide to the left. Smith maneuvers into space when possible. Raul Ruidiaz probes the opposing center backs.

The biggest reason for the Sounders’ playoff surge was their improvement in the final third. They played faster and with more purpose, conceding fewer counters in the other direction and increasing the speed of the game. Too often in recent years, they bogged down near the opposing goal and struggled to generate chances. Other teams were happy to let the Sounders pass it around for five minutes and then loft a low-percentage cross.

As Seattle figured out how effective they could be on the counter, that problem figured itself out. They let other teams work the ball up the field, daring opposing right backs to push forward and leave space for Morris to exploit. The Sounders worked faster, and understood the positive endgames for their attack. They created overloads. Lodeiro initiated skillful combination play — Rodriguez’s goal was a brilliant example.

Toronto managed to not get killed on the counter, and they successfully bossed the game for stretches of the first half. It is not easy to pin the Sounders deep in Seattle. But without Jozy Altidore in the starting lineup, their attacking setup was fatally flawed. Alejandro Pozuelo, playing as a false 9, can only do so much. Even as they played well in possession and forced Seattle to play behind the ball, TFC rarely looked like scoring, outside of one shot that forced a good Stefan Frei save.

Jozy Altidore entered in the 68th-minute and barely did anything. The quad injury that had kept him out of the playoffs must have hampered him. He touched the ball a total of five times: three successful passes, one clearance on a defensive set piece, and a stoppage time consolation goal.

Seattle walk away with a title in front of one of the biggest and most exciting crowds we’ve seen in MLS. Schmetzer played his cards right, trusting the system and style that took them so far. His insertion of Rodriguez was important; they needed a jolt of playmaking, and V-Rod came through in the clutch. Any defensive concerns did not come to fruition. The Sounders take the Cup.

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