Since there’s a little more at stake this weekend than usual, it seems like a good idea to take a deeper look into what the Seattle Sounders are facing. Today we’ll overview Toronto FC’s defensive system and a couple strategies the Sounders can use to open holes.
How Toronto sets up
Greg Vanney’s discovery of the 3-5-2 in 2016 was the catalyst to much of their success — at least, up until MLS Cup. It’s an atypical formation for non-Italian teams, and it’s only recently that it’s shifted from a defend-your-heart out formation to one with serious two-way chops. There probably aren’t a lot of other rosters in the league that would be able to pull it off, never mind doing so with anywhere near the success.
The hardest part of pulling off the three-man back line is undoubtedly how different the responsibilities are for center backs, wing backs, and the defensive midfielder — that’s a lot of change for players to learn, and it’s easy for it to go wildly wrong if it doesn’t click. Success requires athletic wing backs willing to run, active two-way shuttlers who can contribute to offense and defense, and a CDM capable of covering a vast range of space and situations.
The reward, however, is having the flexibility to drop deep or overload the midfield without significant shift to on-field roles. The back line of Chris Mavinga, Drew Moor, and Eriq Zavaleta are supplemented by Michael Bradley at CDM, with Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow at the wing backs. In defense they’re essentially a 5-3-2 or 6-2-2, depending on how deep Bradley drops. Mavinga has been a gem of a find — locking down his outside center back spot has enabled much of Morrow’s success, allowing him confidence and freedom to push and stay farther upfield than the formation would generally call for.
They’re certainly not locked into the formation, and you’ll see variants of a 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 pop up from time to time. The former in particular when they’re looking to shift into a high press, the latter when Morrow is maintaining a stronger attacking presence.
How they play
For all the talk of the Reds’ vaunted offense (and to be clear, they deserve it) Toronto is decidedly a defense-first team a good portion of the time. It’s not uncommon to see three or four players around the ball in the Toronto defensive third, and a push to get the ball to Bradley for accurate long passes to start transition once a turnover occurs.
Bradley has refined his understanding of the defensive midfielder position and floats in front of Moor as a hybrid CB-CDM, strengthening two lines at a time. Columbus, a team functionally similar to Seattle on offense, found their best success when they were able to pull Bradley upfield — the Toronto CBs are good, but they’re not Roman Torres and Chad Marshall good. Doing so requires the offensive team to force the shuttlers (likely Marky Delgado and Victor Vazquez) to move wide. Strong wing play from a 4-2-3-1 will pull them to support the wingbacks, in turn opening the middle up for Clint Dempsey and the opposite wing to exploit.
To allow Bradley some vertical flexibility, Steven Beitashour has tempered his attacking tendencies even further this season. Though age is probably a contributor to that, he remains an intelligent, athletic wingback capable of shifting smartly between defense and attack at the right times. On the opposite side, Morrow has had a career year offensively, indicative of his propensity to charge forward. This gives the back line a bit of a slanted look, with Beitashour functioning mostly on the defensive half, while Morrow moves more in the box-to-box lines. Both are more than willing to put in the defensive work, and keep it as their main focus.
Toronto keeps the line of conflict a bit deeper than you’d expect looking at results, but doing so is calculated to keep a numbers advantage near and behind the ball, suck the offensive team’s midfield up the field, and allow Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and Victor Vazquez an open, forward-momentum field to transition the ball into. Unlike a defense like Sporting Kansas City’s, Toronto is constantly looking for ways in which to flip the momentum of play, and is willing to take calculated risks to do so.
How to break it down
Toronto mitigates the traditional spacing exploit implemented against the 3-5-2 via a plethora of smart players who adjust well as a unit, but they’re not immune to it. Their reliance on vertical channel responsibilities leaves them open to exploitation via quick ball movement and fluid offensive play. Horizontal movement, in particular, is difficult for Toronto to deal with, forcing them into making tough decisions on when hand off, and to whom.
As Susie covered recently, Victor Rodriguez’s presence is a critical part of making this work. A talented offense is transformed into a dangerous one with him on the field, helping give intent to ball and player movement. His ability to recognize where space will open and when runs need to be angled versus vertical to maintain pressure is just the right level of je ne sais quoi (shoutout to Montreal, you’re the better Canadian city). He likes to drive into the channels where there’s typically a hole between CB and RB, but that isn’t quite going to be the case on Saturday.
In Toronto’s case, there’s probably a CB waiting for him right there, and a shuttler snapping at his heels. He’s going to force the RWB to defend Jones on an island, have a CB caught between supporting two different defenders in no-mans-land, or find his own one-on-one. None of these are exciting propositions for them to deal with.
Ultimately, it’s probable this battle will come down to the victor of Dempsey versus Bradley. For all the importance of the moving pieces around them, the two veteran US national teamers are the engines of their respective offense and defense. Seattle has shown they’re capable of success without Dempsey, and with Dempsey being marked out of matches. Toronto hasn’t shown the same without Bradley, and when they’ve struggled it’s been because teams have game-planned to force him out of his zone. If Dempsey (and probably a good dose of Nicolas Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan) is able to draw him up and/or out while Seattle transitions and attacks, they should have a number of opportunities to exploit the overloads and space to good effect.
Seattle’s natural tendency to do many of these things already is reason to be optimistic that we’ll see more threatening production than last year’s entirely sufficient, cup-winning offense. Their improved finishing over the past couple months should give even the most pessimistic Sounders fan solid hope that the chances created will result in at least a goal or two.
Tomorrow we’ll take a long look at Toronto’s transition and offensive game, and how it stacks up against one of the strongest defenses in the league.