There’s no doubt that for fans Seattle hosting the Montreal Impact in the MLS Cup would be quite ideal. The Sounders have the best attendance in the league, and the atmosphere at CenturyLink Field can be world class. But other than the (uncertain, at times) benefits of home-field advantage, which Eastern Conference finalist do the Sounders have a better chance at beating?
Category 1: Location, Venue
Toronto FC: The Sounders would face Toronto at BMO Field for the Final if they win the East; the location is given to the team with the most regular season points (Toronto had 53 to Seattle’s 48). Toronto usually has a pretty solid home crowd, with an average attendance of 25,907; around 4,000 higher than the league median. BMO Field is also over 2500 miles away from Seattle and thus would cost fans quite a bit to travel.
Montreal Impact: A matchup against Montreal would mean that the Cup would be hosted by the Sounders, surrounded by their famous fans at CenturyLink Field. The Sounders, yet again, led the league in attendance in 2016 with a regular season average of 42,636. On a Saturday night with over a week to prepare and no other local sports to compete with, the Sounders could absolutely pack CenturyLink to the rafters.
Who the Sounders would rather play: Montreal, hands down. The Sounders would definitely benefit from their home crowd, and they wouldn’t have to travel so far to Toronto.
Category 2: Home/away record comparison
Toronto: Toronto’s home record in the 2016 regular season was 8-3-6 with a +11 goal differential. On the flip side, Seattle’s away record was 4-9-4 with a -9 GD—though it should also be noted that since Brian Schmetzer took over, the Sounders have a 4-3-2 record away from home including the playoffs. TFC also won both of their home games in the 2016 playoffs so far with a GD of +4, while the Sounders are 1-1 with an even goal difference on the road.
Montreal: Seattle’s home record during the 2016 regular season was 10-2-5 with a goal differential of +10, and they have dominated their home encounters in the playoffs so far, winning all three with a +5 GD. Montreal’s away form was one of the best in the East: 4-7-6 and a -6 goal differential. They are 2-0 in the playoffs, though, having beaten D.C. United and New York City FC.
Who the Sounders would rather play: This one’s really about the numbers, so it’s gotta by Montreal again. Even though the Impact have a fairly solid away record (they seem to have played very defensively away from home this year), the Sounders have been extremely good at home—especially since Schmetzer took over.
Category 3: Tactics/Style of play
Toronto: As of late, Toronto has been playing similar to a 3-5-2, in the hopes of getting the ball to their two excellent forwards (Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco) as much as possible. This further allows them to pack the midfield and work the ball up the pitch, in hopes of controlling possession and methodically building in attack. They’re also able to shoot well from distance—Toronto is tied for second-most goals in 2016 from outside the penalty box.
Montreal: Even though most expected Toronto to win the East, the Impact showed in the first leg how important their tactical advantage was over their fellow Canadians. Montreal has a fierce, quick counterattack that was especially on display on Dominic Oduro’s goal in the first leg. This kind of goal is Montreal’s bread and butter this year, and it was an especially potent strategy against Toronto’s back three. Patrice Bernier scorched Toronto’s disorganized back three with his pass to Oduro, who had plenty of time and space to get in the box and score the goal. These goals are the result of Montreal’s 4-3-3 formation, which allows them to focus on sending through balls and knockdown headers to their speedy wingers.
Who the Sounders would rather play: This is a pretty tough one, but I think the Sounders have a better shot tactically against Toronto. Montreal’s speed could really burn Seattle’s fullbacks, though I do think the Sounders could stifle much of the midfield creativity. But if Toronto sticks with their 3-5-2, I think Jordan Morris could get similar chances to Oduro’s, especially with Nicolas Lodeiro pulling the strings. Their three center back system could make it tough to play the ball in the air, but that’s not really Seattle’s biggest strength right now.
Category 4: Defense
Toronto: Toronto’s 3-5-2 has its defensive advantages and disadvantages. Their three starting center backs are Drew Moor, Eriq Zavaleta, and Nick Hagglund. While that trio is solid, they’re not exactly the most intimidating defensive group in the league. Goalkeeper Clint Irwin has gone about his season mostly under the radar, which is... mostly a good thing. Flashy, they are not. That being said, Toronto did allow the second-fewest goals in all of MLS in the regular season with 39. They match up well aerially with Seattle’s Nelson Valdez, but Morris could take advantage of them with his speed.
Montreal: On paper, Montreal’s defense is pretty average—they were right in the middle of the pack in terms of goals allowed this season. But for some reason, their center back duo seem to have much more name recognition than their Toronto counterparts. Laurent Ciman was talked about a ton earlier in the season after winning Defender of the Year in 2015, which led to his inclusion in the 2016 MLS All-Star team. Ciman led the league in interceptions in 2016, with his partner Victor Cabrera not far behind. Montreal’s fullbacks are far less flashy, though left-back Ambroise Oyongo has a reputation for stopping crosses from his side of the pitch regularly.
Who would the Sounders rather play: Another tough one, but I’d probably say Montreal. Even though the Sounders could take advantage of Toronto’s back three tactically, I’m not sure if they have enough speed (besides Morris) to really do so. Montreal’s defenders might be flashy, but they’re certainly vulnerable. They allowed two goals from Toronto in the first leg, almost completely blowing their 3-0 lead.
Category 5: Midfield
Toronto: This one’s tough, as I’m including Toronto’s wing-backs in midfield rather than defense. Their 3-5-2 system allows them to pack the midfield and stifle possession, though it also lets them get caught off-guard by quick counterattacks. Michael Bradley pulls the main strings from central midfield, and he’s flanked by Jonathan Osorio and Armando Cooper. This setup didn’t have anything significant in the way of defensive midfielders, something that Toronto might change in the second leg and beyond. They use their wing-backs to create width up and down the field, but they’re vulnerable to getting caught up the field and allowing opposing wingers to get into the space they’ve vacated.
Montreal: As opposed to their wingers, Montreal’s midfield isn’t the quickest, but they often get the job done through passing ability and technique on the ball. Patrice Bernier is the standout here, and his ability to thread passes (see: his assist for Oduro in the first leg) is excellent. Against a more defensive-minded midfielder, though, Bernier and company might be a bit more vulnerable. Toronto’s midfield often has an attack-only mentality, and Montreal took advantage of that well in the first leg.
Who would the Sounders rather play: Even though I think Seattle could really boss Toronto’s midfield around, I think they have a better shot against Montreal in that area of the pitch. Bernier may have looked great as of late, but he hasn’t exactly been a model of consistency. Cristian Roldan and (hopefully) Osvaldo Alonso will nullify Bernier and his fellow midfielders with ease, and they won’t be given nearly as much time on the ball as they did against Toronto. Lodeiro shouldn’t have any problems dealing with the midfield either, and I’d expect him to easily pull the strings.
Category 6: Attack
Toronto: Here’s where it gets especially interesting. Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco might be one of the most potent strike teams in all of MLS. Between the two of them in 2016, they scored 27 goals and notched 17 assists. Altidore is a strong aerial presence with great finishing ability, while Giovinco is Giovinco. He does it all. Quick, technical, creative, and a brilliant finisher, Giovinco strikes fear into the heart of defenses the league over.
Montreal: One surprise of the 2016 MLS season was the Impact’s attacking potency, especially without the regular services of superstar Designated Player Didier Drogba. Wingers Ignacio Piatti and Dominic Oduro have been the stars in this attack, and they’ve found a terrific rhythm this season. They’re joined by Matteo Mancosu in the middle, who often serves as a target man to knock down lofted balls to the wingers or a false nine that makes late runs into the box to collect passes from them. They don’t exactly lead the league in scoring this season, but they’re still extremely dangerous, as their 10 playoff goals illustrate.
Who would the Sounders rather play: Another tough call, but I think Toronto actually gets this one. Facing Giovinco at home is a terrifying prospect, but I think the Sounders are set up to face him pretty well. Roldan and Alonso would nullify his ability to drop deep, and a Roman Torres shadow could really tighten the screws. But Montreal’s wingers could exploit Seattle’s fullbacks, even if they’ve been in good form lately. Like I mentioned above, the prospect of Piatti against Mears is a little bit scary to think about.
Toronto FC: 2
Winner: Montreal Impact
Despite their quick counterattack and high-profile center back pairing, I think a home game at CenturyLink Field against Montreal would give the Sounders the best chance at finally lifting the MLS Cup.