TFC finished 14-9-11 with a +12 goal differential, good for 3rd in the East and 5th in the Shield. The Seattle Sounders were not much worse on the year, though their journey was much different. SSFC went 14-14-6 +1 for 4th in the West and 7th in the Shield race. Now, the two teams that redefined MLS expansion face off in their first ever MLS Cup (Fox, UniMas, TSN, RDS at 5 PM Pacific on December 10th).
Rather than a quick exchange of three questions, Sounder at Heart and Waking the Red are going in depth with our coverage. Today’s focus is on Gio for the Reds and Seattle’s style in attack.
Oliver from Waking The Red talks to us about Sebastian Giovinco.
SaH: What teams were successful in slowing Giovinco down? Was there a common technique?
WtR: The most effective way to stop Sebastian Giovinco is to have a turf pitch. He just does not like them - mostly because of the injury risk, I think - although he did manage to score in New England earlier this season. Fortunately for Toronto FC, that won't be an issue at BMO Field.
Home and away, there were only two matches during the regular season - against the New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew - in which Giovinco did not score, assist or create a chance. In one, he was substituted after 21 minutes with an injury. In the other, he was missing Jozy Altidore and Armando Cooper - as well as Tosaint Ricketts and Jonathan Osorio from the bench - from the supporting cast he will have Saturday. Both matches were back in May, when Toronto were not the MLS Cup challenger we see now.
It's difficult to stop him influencing the game in one way or another, but the key to containing him as much as possible is to shut down the space in the inside channels. Giovinco is not big or powerful enough to be a penalty-area presence like Altidore, nor is he an attacking-midfield playmaker like Nicolas Lodeiro. He's an out-and-out forward, but someone who will drift across the pitch and drop deeper to receive the ball when he finds space in which to do so.
If you watch his hat-trick against New York City in the second leg of the conference semi-finals, all three of his goals - including the penalty he won for the second - came as a result of him picking the ball up in a position just to the outside of the goal frame and then driving inside. That is where he is most dangerous and once he has the ball in those situations, it's too late - you have to cut it off earlier by ensuring you do not make mistakes in midfield that allow Toronto to create quick transitions and counter-attacks.
Montreal did a better job of that, particularly at the Olympic Stadium, where it was more difficult for Toronto to win possession quickly on the big, fast surface.
They had two problems, however. Firstly, if you focus too much on Giovinco and he is able to suck in multiple players, Altidore will have a field day in the one-on-one situations he can subsequently create. He's too powerful for most MLS defenders to deal with without help and it's important to remember he's arguably been even better than Giovinco in the past couple of months. Justin Morrow, in my mind the best left-back in the league and now liberated to attack at will as a wing-back, will benefit too.
Secondly, even if you shut Giovinco down in open play, he can still hurt you with his set-piece delivery, as was the case in the second leg against the Impact. That's what makes him MLS' best player for me - he finds a way to make the difference in games even when the stuff he's really good at and enjoys isn't coming off.
WtR: Toronto had problems dealing with Montreal's counter-attacking style in the conference finals. How do Seattle like to play, what approach do you seen them taking for this game and how do you see it matching up against TFC?
SaH: Under Brian Schmetzer the Sounders attack has focused on three things. They've really not shifted from them, no matter the opponent. Schmetzer wants other teams to adjust to them, and often this proactive approach is working.
The first of these is springing Jordan Morris. This can be via a throughball from Nicolas Lodeiro or long balls from many sources (Lodeiro, Alonso, Friberg, Roldan, Marshall, Torres). Morris is one of the faster players in the league, uses his body well under contact, and can deliver a great right-footed shot in heavy traffic. Even if forced away from goal he is rather effective at spraying the ball across the goal mouth. Those passes tend to target Valdez and Lodeiro. This is not only their primary path to goal, it is also the one most similar to what Montreal did effectively.
If Morris is pushed wide and doesn't have a runner, or the defense gets back fast enough that the Sounders cannot seek Morris in those situations they convert to a rather methodical long possession team. This will mostly focus on trying to get Lodeiro as many touches as possible in places where his vision can open a path to goal, but will include any of the non-centerbacks. It can be methodical and plodding, sometimes not resulting in a goal. The greatest example is probably their 35 touch, 9 player, 1 minute 27 second possession against FC Dallas.
When this results in goals those will most often come via a cross from wide spaces. This is a bit opportunistic.
Lastly, they are a rather good set-piece team. With both Lodeiro and Andreas Ivanschitz providing quality service aiming at the heads of Marshall, Torres, Valdez and Evans, the Sounders get goals this way. When they possess deep they know they will get foul calls within the range of those two players.
None of this is rather complicated or revolutionary. It's just how the team works, and since July 31st it has been working quite well.