Across the Atlantic, three-man backlines are gaining favor. Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney implemented one just as the playoffs started (you may have noticed; it’s been a big talking point). This unconventional formation in MLS is a theme on Sounder at Heart today, because it is what makes TFC tic. We’ve written a scouting report on their defense as well as a tactical preview that focuses on how Seattle Sounders FC can approach the shape.
Oliver from Waking The Red talks to us about the switch to the 3-4-1-2.
SaH: Why did TFC switch to a three-man backline? How has it done against single-striker systems?
WtR: While they had used the system in certain situations throughout the year, Toronto only switched to 3-5-2 for good on the final day of the regular season against the Chicago Fire, so it's hard to say whether it was always the plan or simply something they stumbled upon that worked. Regardless, it has brought a few benefits on both sides of the ball.
Defensively, Toronto had rotated between Damian Perquis (who was released), Eriq Zavaleta, Nick Hagglund and Josh Williams alongside Drew Moor while playing a back four, but only Moor was consistently convincing. Deploying him as the sweeper at the centre of a back three, with Hagglund and Zavaleta either side, means there is less of a 'weak side' to TFC's defence. It also allows the attack-minded Justin Morrow to do more of what he does best as a wing-back in the knowledge that Hagglund, who is athletic enough to keep up with most wingers, can slide across to cover the space behind him.
Further forward, Toronto have a lot of depth in central midfield but not many wide options, and they also need to be able to fit both Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore into the team as a front two. Their solution was to use a diamond midfield for much of the season, with Michael Bradley sitting in front of the back four, two 'shuttlers' ahead of him and a No.10 behind the strikers. That worked reasonably well, but it sometimes congested the spaces in which Giovinco is most effective.
By dropping a midfielder into defence, Toronto are able to stretch teams wider through Morrow and Steven Beitashour and no longer use a No.10, both of which serve to create more room in which Giovinco can operate. Additionally, while Toronto have a few players who can play behind the strikers, they are all - Jonathan Osorio in particular - better suited to attacking from a deeper starting position. The system has both created a more balanced team unit and ensured that no individual in the starting lineup is out of their comfort zone.
As David Villa found out, it can be tough for lone strikers to get much change out of three central defenders. Where I think Seattle have an advantage, however, is that their two most dangerous attacking players - Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro - are likely to start in deeper positions. Whereas New York City needed Villa to be their best player to have a chance of winning, Montreal only required Matteo Mancosu to occupy the back three with physical play and constant running to create space for Ignacio Piatti and Dominic Oduro. That's a perfect job description for Nelson Valdez.
While that will be challenging matchup for TFC, most of their defensive problems in the Montreal tie - and this season as a whole - came as a result of self-inflicted mistakes, missed assignments and bad bounces. It also felt like just about everything Montreal created ended up in the back of the net. If they can play on the front foot and disrupt Seattle at their source by denying Osvaldo Alonso time on the ball, I think there's a good chance we'll see an improved defensive display.
WtR: Beyond the arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro, what were the biggest factors in the Sounders' transformation from the first half of the season to the second?
SaH: Adding Nico is a big deal, but the turn around is not just about the Uruguayan.
The coaching change was a huge moment. While Sigi Schmid is one of the greatest coaches to grace the sidelines in MLS, it was apparent that a few players had quit on him. The 4-2 loss to LA in the Open Cup and then a 3-nil loss to Sporting KC looked like the end of any chance at a trophy. In came Brian Schmetzer, the former First Assistant Coach. While a hopeful fan could think that he would be a decent caretaker, he was much more.
Schmetzer not only convinced the team to believe in themselves again, he gave them responsibility for their performance. He would not permit them to point a finger at others. The players, more than anyone else, would be responsible for success. They accepted that responsibility.
He then put even more pressure on old veterans. Rarely would Schmetzer point to a youngster and the bench and elevate them. In a situation where the team had to essentially win every match or it might was well go young and plan for 2017, he went old - and won. Then he kept winning, and won some more. Eventually the Sounders went from 9th in the West to 4th in the West. There was a brief period when it looked like they could get a first round bye.
Yes, Lodeiro was a part of this. Schmetzer was a part of this. Two others added to the turnaround.
Roman Torres came back from an ACL injury. Prior to blowing his knee the Panamanian could be considered one of the top five or six centerbacks in MLS. Already with a good defense in MLS, the Sounders got even better. This also meant that Brad Evans could go back to being a flex player, and it would take two injuries to put Zach Scott into the starting lineup. That is serious depth at CB.
The other addition was the return of Alvaro Fernandez. Way back in 2011 Flaco was the scoring threat that started after Steve Zakuani's leg was brutally broken by Brian Mullan. Now, though, Fernandez is not a scoring threat. He is a master of possession, a good aerial winner and strangely became a capable defender as he aged. Alvaro will almost certainly not be a starter in 2017, but the depth he offers in the flank or center is quite valuable, plus he and Lodeiro are friends who played together with Nacional and Uruguay. That psychological benefit is hard to judge, but shouldn't be ignored.
Lodeiro gets all the attention, but if any one of these other three things didn't happen it all falls apart. A team doesn't go 12-3-4 during the stretch run and playoffs without a near perfect storm. This was that. It took Lodeiro, Torres, Fernandez and the whole team believing in Brian Schmetzer. That's what it will take on Saturday too.