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Scouting Report: Reminding Toronto FC who the champion is

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In case you weren’t sure, it’s Seattle.

MLS: MLS Cup John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Who You’ll Watch

Almost five months to the day, the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC will square off for the first time since MLS Cup Final. I wouldn’t necessarily call this an MLS Cup rematch but that is how it will be billed. This will be the only MLS regular season meeting between these two clubs.

Toronto is coming off of a 2-0 victory against the Houston Dynamo last Friday and a 2-1 victory over Orlando City on Wednesday night to continue their unbeaten run at BMO Field in 2017. Seattle also continued their unbeaten run at CenturyLink Field after their thrilling, come from behind 3-3 tie against the New England Revolution. Who knew a tie could be so exhilarating.

Toronto has five players listed on the injury report as out: Chris Mavinga (quad injury), Drew Moor (cardiac arrhythmia), Clint Irwin (hamstring strain), Ashton Morgan (stress fracture in foot), and Jason Hernandez (calf injury) are slated not to make the trip to Seattle.

The Sounders has a long list of players with questionable health, including missing so far this season Aaron Kovar (groin surgery). Oniel Fisher (left hamstring strain) and Brad Evans (calf muscle strain) are still questionable and could find themselves in the 18 if things go well in training this week. Chad Marshall (lower back pain) has missed the last two games and it is not sure if he will take the field this weekend either. Roman Torres (left hamstring strain) made a return last weekend but it is not known if he is ready for a full 90 minutes.

Toronto record: 4-1-4, T-2nd in East

Top Scorer: Jozy Altidore, 5 goals

Top Assist leader: Victor Vazquez, 5 assists

Notable Toronto Roster changes:

Out: Will Johnson (Orlando), Mark Bloom (traded to Atlanta), Josh Williams (Columbus)

In: Mavinga, Victor Vazquez, Hernandez

What to Watch

Toronto is much the same team that the Sounders faced in the MLS Cup final last year, at least structurally. Greg Vanney has stuck with the 3-5-2 (most accurately a 3-1-4-2), but there are some new characters in the game. Drew Moor recently was diagnosed with a cardiac arrythmia, so the veteran Justin Morrow has taken over as the third CB (though he may be rotated out this match for rest). Raheem Edwards has been excellent at right wingback, and Vazquez looks to be the quality attack-oriented CM the team lacked last year.

Toronto is a confident team that doesn’t mind possession or pushing forward, even with a bit of a lead, and that’s actually kind of good news for a Sounders team surely tired of facing teams in a deep bunker. Tired legs may lead to a bit more bunker than usual, but Seattle should finally have an opponent that doesn’t sit 11 back and allow them an absurd amount of possession.

Overloads and Angles - The 3-5-2 is a formation built to overload and fill space. In offense it pulls wingers back into defensive support via its wingbacks, provides midfielders to run the channels and angles into space created by movement from the two forwards, and stretches the width of the field without becoming overly thin, helping create passing space to more easily maintain possession. Toronto uses its ability to overload extremely well, and Vazquez has been a great addition - he uses the space underneath Sebastian Giovinco and Altidore well, and his six assists on the season show how well he’s done at finding the right pass from there. This week’s Sounders backline may see the return of Torres to help crush the little ant and his sidekick, but the true mark of success will be how well Seattle are able to separate the Toronto midfield from their forward line. The 4-2-3-1 provides solid defensive cover for the overload - if Altidore and Giovinco are regularly having to come back to midfield to find the ball, the Sounders will be having a good day.

In defense the 3-5-2 clogs the middle further upfield with its three CMs, and provides for maintaining a higher line of confrontation on the ball. The formation demands a lot of the backline, both athletically and mentally. Against a basic two-man forward line it maintains a clear advantage at the back, but the risks increase when the opposition runs a 1 or 3 up top and when the opponent’s fullbacks/wingbacks press forward. With a single striker and a well-positioned second attacking line, the three defenders must choose between being pulled out of position by moving further up field, or staying back and defending no one.

With a single striker and attacking fullbacks, the defensive responsibilities to handle the true attacking band fall to the midfield, which helps pull back the more offensive-focused of the CMs. With a CF who likes to drift towards the side, such as Bruin, the odds of being pulled out of shape in the back are high, and there should be space to work with (Nelson Valdez played this thankless role well in MLS Cup, and the Sounders clearly missed the added field intelligence of Clint Dempsey to exploit the spacing during regular time). Angled runs that shift the overload with them as they move, in particular, will give a widely spaced backline issues as they try to decide who to hand off, when, and where to place themselves.

To mitigate this, Michael Bradley is often found dropped at the top of the back, functioning close to a traditional No. 6, but also holding what amounts to advanced CB responsibilities (he’ll still make occasional late runs, but mainly uses his above-average long-pass ability to start attacks). While he had the luxury of spending a significant amount of time on Lodeiro in MLS Cup, this time he’ll be forced to choose between Dempsey and Lodeiro. Success for the Sounders will be combining the benefits of a lone striker, attacking fullbacks, and two creative players in the middle at the same time. Normally, this extra demand on the legs of the CMs would be a stress but not a killer - this week, however, on their third match in 8 days, the odds of problems arising will be much higher.

Toronto Left vs Seattle Right - Jordy Delem is likely to get another start at RB, and this will undoubtedly be his most difficult test to date. He will be tasked with helping deal with Vazquez, Raheem Edwards, and a small man from the front who’s pretty good on the ball and often shades to the defensive right. Delem struggled with knowing who to defend, as highlighted by Realio in the ratings for last week. He’s going to require help from a CB and a DCM, and that’s going to weaken the Sounders’ ability to address central attacks.

To be frank, there isn’t an easy or sneaky tactical solution to this. Lodeiro isn’t going to - and shouldn’t - give up offensive time to drop back and defend deep in the corner more than he already does, and Roldan isn’t going to be able to dedicate himself solely to helping out all the way outside without exposing the middle. A more conservative coach might tell Delem to stay home entirely for the match - it’s unlikely that Brian Schmetzer is that coach. He’ll likely have instructions to be judicious in when he roams forward, but fullback width is key in spreading apart the defense; a day of classic fullback just won’t do. The best thing the Sounders can do is keep a bit of possession to limit Toronto attacks, and Delem will need to show he belongs at the MLS level.

Expected Lineups:

Seattle: Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Gustav Svensson, Torres, Delem; Osvaldo Alonso; Cristian Roldan; Jordan Morris, Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro; Will Bruin

Toronto: Alex Bono; Eriq Zavaleta, Nick Hagglund, Morrow; Edwards, Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Vazquez, Marco Delgado; Giovinco, Altidore

How to Watch

Date/Time: Saturday, May 6 12:00 pm

Venue: CenturyLink Field

Television: ESPN

Radio: KIRO 97.3 (English), 1360 El Rey (Spanish)