Welcome back to MLS’s version of Cavs-Warriors and Alabama-Clemson: Toronto FC vs. Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup Final.
We’ve seen this matchup twice already, and you might know what to expect from both teams by now. Seattle will play a 4-2-3-1 and keep the ball in front of them. Toronto will build through the middle and give the ball to Michael Bradley a lot.
Not everything is quite the same. Jozy Altidore is likely out, at least from the start, which means we’ll probably see Alejandro Pozuelo at the false nine. Seattle host this version, possibly encouraging more aggressive play. Let’s preview Round Three:
MLS Cup Final Preview: Toronto FC vs Seattle Sounders
1. The last time we saw Toronto FC this late in a season was 2017, when they blitzed the Sounders in that year’s final and secured MLS’s first treble. They’ve morphed into a lesser version of that team in the time since. They collapsed in last year’s regular season and inexplicably missed the playoffs, souring relations with Sebastian Giovinco and wasting a year of the core they established back in 2015.
TFC let Giovinco walk in the offseason and replaced him with Pozuelo, a bona fide star. Pozuelo put up 12 goals and 12 assists this season as an attacking fulcrum. He surprisingly managed to find his way onto the league’s Best XI this year, a misleading indication of his abilities. He can float in and out of games, with his best moments overshadowing his quiet stretches. He is no Giovinco.
The rest of the team isn’t dramatically different. TAM winger Nicolas Benezet, acquired late in the summer window, replaced Victor Vazquez. Tsubasa Endoh carved out a role in the starting lineup. Quentin Westberg stole the starting goalkeeper job from the struggling Alex Bono.
The defense, which became the biggest problem in 2018, experienced similar struggles this year. However, they survived much better this time. Omar Gonzalez helped significantly, making his debut at center back in July and shoring things up at the back. Gonzalez hasn’t played in the playoffs due to injury, though.
Greg Vanney is still the coach, and he’s maintained the tactical flexibility he’s become known for. Hype for Vanney as one of the best American coaches has died out, but he has done well in the past month or so to help TFC navigate a tough playoff road despite injuries to two of their three best players.
2. The good money is on Toronto playing a 4-2-3-1 formation with Pozuelo up top as a free No. 9. They will take their opportunities to play on the ball, knowing that the Sounders will try to counter-attack when possible. TFC’s buildup will come primarily through the middle of the field, where Bradley is the fulcrum and Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado are capable ball-movers. Expect Auro and Justin Morrow to maneuver forward from outside back as well, though Auro will have to be cautious with the threat of Jordan Morris running the other way.
Seattle know how to play compact in midfield; you don’t beat LAFC without being able to get pressure to the ball. Gustav Svensson and Cristian Roldan are one of the most solid and trustworthy deep midfield duos in MLS.
One potential deficiency for Seattle that Steve Zakuani brought up on the HPS MLS podcast is Nicolas Lodeiro’s movement. Lodeiro goes everywhere, and while he is the key to everything the Sounders do, his positions when Seattle loses the ball could be a liability. When he vacates the middle of the field, Toronto could capitalize on the resulting space.
3. Some have theorized that TFC play a five-at-the-back, in anticipation of Seattle controlling play at home. Vanney should consider that approach. If Toronto take a lead at any time, we may see a midgame formation switch.
The Sounders are better when they’re attacking into space and playing fast. Their flaws poke through when they’re trying to move the ball and control the flow of the game. They tend to get bogged down in trying to move it into the final third, and then get trapped once they get there. By playing a deeper, more stout line, TFC would be able to induce Seattle into possessing the ball more, deflating Morris and the threatening counter-attack.
4. Concerns about the Sounders heading into the playoffs surrounded the center backs, where they no longer have the presence of the retired Chad Marshall. Xavier Arreaga has acquitted himself well. Roman Torres is a liability if he has to enter at some point (or if he starts over Arreaga). Toronto arguably have more pressing defensive concerns, especially without Gonzalez.
5. Seattle are the definite favorites. They have home-field advantage, and they profile as the more solid team. Altidore is an X-factor, given that he could come off the bench and influence the proceedings. In this year of unpredictable playoff results, I’m not stepping outside the box: Sounders in regular time.
Also Read: MLS Cup Final Odds