If the addition of Nicolas Lodeiro single-handedly changed the Sounders’ season, then the return of Roman Torres from injury is what led Seattle to the first MLS Cup victory in their history.
Brad Evans held the second center back spot alongside Chad Marshall for much of the last two years. The duo worked together seamlessly, with Marshall dominating the air while Evans covered the ground game, both on offense and defense. For much of their tenure Marshall has been the more traditional of the two center backs. Evans, for his part, was focused on possession and how the Sounders built play out of the back. Working in tandem with Osvaldo Alonso and Tyrone Mears, the trio were responsible for much of the Sounders possession game.
Towards that end, when we look at Evans’ passing maps we see a huge emphasis on lateral passing and keeping the game short. The Sounders are working the ball. This shows up in bad losses, good wins, and both pre- and post-Lodeiro times.
Roman Torres is not Brad Evans. Immediately upon his introduction into the Portland Timbers match, the Sounders changed. Torres is a more traditional center back and very similar to Chad Marshall. They both play the ball vertically and eschew short horizontal control. They’re more focused on getting the ball out of their zone and into the feet of their playmakers.
Torres shows a greater willingness to play the ball into midfield or into the feet of the fullbacks. This verticality reduces the effectiveness of opposition pressing as well as creates second balls. With the likes of Lodeiro, Roldan and Friberg who actively run in midfield, the Sounders are in a better position to grab possession higher up the pitch.
For the Sounders, they’ve had tremendous success with both approaches. However, to win their first MLS Cup, the Sounders had a path that ran through both Colorado and Toronto.
Colorado ate the Sounders for breakfast in the regular season behind physical play and their willingness to sit back. They allowed the Sounders to play their possession game from deep and used it against them. Without Evans, the Sounders possession game moved into midfield where it directly challenged the Rapids midfield. This required Mastroeni’s side to be more aggressive than in previous meetings. That worked in the Sounders’ favor, creating space for Nicolas Lodeiro to drive the attack. In conjunction with the way Torres played, the Sounders had the advantage this time around. They handily won both matches.
Toronto presented the Sounders with the opposite extreme. Their strength lies in their midfield press. The work rate of Cooper, Osorio, and Johnson is how Toronto control the game. Add the physicality of Torres — i.e., keeping Jozy Altidore in check — together with his vertical play and the Sounders were able to keep the Toronto midfield playing at full steam, just chasing the ball while eliminating their main outlet to bring play forward.
The return of Roman Torres brought a very subtle change to the Sounders backline. Yet it was a subtle change that paid huge dividends in how they were able to confront and defeat the teams they had to face to earn their first MLS Cup. At the same time, Torres represents a fundamental shift in how the Sounders play and what roles their midfielders have to assume.
Will this change the face of how Seattle plays going forward? We’ve already seen the evolution of a new midfield structure focused around Alonso as the sole distributor in the last two months with Alonso, Roldan, and Friberg playing as an inverted 3-man midfield. If that change persists, how will it impact the permanent role of Lodeiro who’s flashed several different play styles over the past months across several attacking positions? Is this going to be a boost for an aging — and ailing — Clint Dempsey who used to fit perfectly into a style of play predicated on quick transition and battling for second balls in midfield?
It’s hard to imagine a single change having this big a knock-on effect for the Sounders and the difference between Torres and Evans is subtle, but it’s also stark. It’s fitting that this type of change coincides with a new era for Sounders soccer.