Toronto FC presents the Seattle Sounders with one of their most complex tactical games of the season. By many rights we should have had a dynamite preview of this matchup in July, but both sides sent out reduced strength lineups depriving us of the opportunity to highlight this game. For Toronto, their presence at MLS Cup 2016 comes down to their high octane offense and impressive Designated Player’s who paper over their tactical weaknesses in defense.
For the Sounders, it will highlight how effective they can be when they are forced to balance both the requisite intense defensive effort needed to mitigate the efforts of both Sebastian Giovinco and Michael Bradley with their speed of attack.
Controlling the Midfield
Despite the presence of Giovinco, Toronto’s true strength lies in its midfield. With Bradley as the central fulcrum of the team — critical both offensively and defensively — this allows Toronto the luxury of playing with a particularly dynamic set of box-to-box midfielders. The work rate of Jonathan Osorio and Will Johnson — both in pressing opposition midfielders and in finding open spaces that allow Bradley a various plethora of passing options — allow Toronto to easily bypass opposition presses. It was a tactic they used to great effect in their 7-0 aggregate win over New York City FC but one Montreal negated with their deep defensive stance.
The end goal of this midfield action is to get the ball played into the wingback pair of Justin Morrow or Steven Beitashour to allow them to combine with Giovinco, who plays from sideline to sideline underneath Jozy Altidore.
For the Seattle Sounders, going toe-to-toe with the Toronto midfield would likely end in disaster. With the trio of attacking midfielders there are simply far too many midfield targets — essentially 5 to 7 targets — for the Sounders to adequately cover in their standard 4x4 defensive setup. This will require some compromises from the Sounders. The most effective may be to ask Nelson Valdez to drop off the backline and aggressively harass Bradley in conjunction with Nicolas Lodeiro. If the Sounders can take Bradley out of the equation Toronto will be forced to use Osorio or one of their outside centerbacks to drive their offense, which is a decidedly more advantageous position to be in.
Restricting Sebastian Giovinco
There’s really no way to stop Sebastian Giovinco. He’s inarguably the best player in MLS and is a threat from close-in, on the dribble and from range. For the Sounders part, they need to restrict his actions around the box. The low defensive block needs to be particularly compact and responsive to his movements, and that is going to require Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan to be on their defensive A games.
Where Giovinco provides the most danger to the Sounders is in his combination play wide with the Toronto wingbacks. Double teaming the Sounders fullbacks presents an opportunity for Toronto to create dangerous crosses to Jozy Altidore. In most situations, the Sounders handle this by sliding one of Roldan or Alonso out wide right to support Tyrone Mears or use a deep two-way midfielder on the left to support Joevin Jones.
With both Giovinco and Toronto’s aggressive box-to-box midfielders in the equation — along with their penchant for shooting from distance, shifting Roldan or Alonso wide opens too much space in the midfield. This will require the Sounders to either support Mears on the right by dropping Jordan Morris deep, or dropping Lodeiro off Bradley to track secondary runs from midfield. Neither option is appealing, and both require the Sounders utilize some complex team defense to shut down Toronto.
Attacking in Transition
For all of Toronto’s offensive prowess, their defense is their weak link. Attack fast and attack hard has to be the mantra for the Sounders. In this scenario, it’s fortunate the Sounders have Lodeiro and Morris leading the charge. The extremes to which Greg Vanney pushes his fullbacks and his outside centerbacks is exceptional. Beitashour and Morrow are expected to carry the entire team forward while key tasks for the pair of Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund are to cover the fullbacks and support Bradley in possession. In most ways, Toronto uses just a sole defender in Drew Moor.
If the Sounders can neutralize Bradley, they’ll force more of the deep work onto the shoulders of Hagglund and Zavaleta. This requires them to be more aggressive and assertive and with a duo of Valdez and Morris, who excel at making inside-out runs off the centerbacks, they should easily be able to force Drew Moor into scrambling the entire game. With Moor occupied, the Sounders can focus on creating 1v1 opportunities for Morris/Valdez and Lodeiro deep in the Toronto half.
Building from the Back
The Sounders shouldn’t hope to replicate what Montreal did with it’s bunker-counter approach. This means they need a gameplan to build possession out of the back and create scoring opportunities independent of their defense while avoiding the aggressive Toronto midfielders. They have a couple options in this regard.
They can adopt a more cautious approach, content to let the Toronto box-to-box midfielders runs themselves ragged. The more work the Sounders can force out of Johnson and Osorio, the more Toronto’s midfield is going to open up towards the end of the game. With their loose backline, Toronto relies on the work rate of those two midfielders for most of it’s defensive structure, and it’s a key reason why it’s almost always the first two substitutions Greg Vanney makes. However, that can’t be the Sounders only plan or Toronto will adjust accordingly quickly.
Toronto’s fullbacks provide the answer for the Sounders. If the Sounders can pin down one fullback with their own fullbacks attacking forward they can switch play using Lodeiro and Alonso, forcing Toronto to either retreat both fullbacks or rely on their centerbacks for cover. If the Sounders can draw out either Hagglund or Zavaleta, they reduce Toronto’s aerial presence by removing the shielding defender and creating 1v1 aerial opportunities for Valdez. If they force the Toronto fullbacks into retreating, they gain time and space in possession to exhaust the Toronto midfield press.
This might be the most exciting MLS Cup matchup of the past few seasons from a neutral perspective. As a Sounders fan, this is likely going to be a wild ride of a game.