The Seattle Sounders are going to play in the MLS Cup Final after a masterful performance against LAFC, a team guided through a record-setting regular season by MLS Coach of the Year Bob Bradley. In the coming days people smarter and better-equipped than myself will break down the tactics that Brian Schmetzer devised and implemented to such great effect, but this is how I saw it, as inspired by the song “That’s How I Beat Shaq” by Aaron Carter.
And it goes, and it goes, and it goes a little something like this:
Brian Schmetzer and the Sounders went into their game against LAFC facing what appeared to be a 12’3” shadow, a looming specter sure to bring pain and suffering to all who stood in the way of their inevitable victory. That had largely been the case during the regular season, and their dominance and attractive style of play, coupled with Bob Bradley’s ability to squeeze better performances from his players than their pure talent would suggest. Most people who wrote or talked about the game were certain that it was going to take a perfect game from the Sounders, a complete collapse from LAFC, or both to see any result other than Bob Bradley’s side taking the next step towards capping their incredible season with an MLS Cup victory.
Schmetzer himself is a skilled man manager, a coach that players like to play for, but seldom recognized for his tactical acumen. While Seattle’s attack had been creating chances and scoring goals in the playoffs and the defense had been fairly stout outside of the game against FC Dallas of late, it was going to take everything short of untying LAFC’s shoes to win. The main focus of any attempts to slow down their daunting attack was obviously going to be Carlos Vela: the number 10, the MVP, the center of LA’s entire system.
Carlos Vela, and just about every other player on LAFC, were regularly greeted with a boom any time they even thought about touching the ball. Vela in particular received a slam courtesy of Xavier Arreaga on a couple of occasions, which raised questions and complaints from LAFC and the commentators, as their fans screamed each time one of their players got jammed up. Schmetzer’s team wasn’t sitting back and waiting to counter, they were working together, defending as a team, dropping back collectively to make it as difficult as possible for LAFC to play through them and into the area with Areaga, Kim, Svensson and Roldan often stepping in to deny service. They coiled like a snake, springing into the attack every time they got as much of a glimpse of the ball, and draining LAFC’s ambition with every strike.
After an impressive and proactive first 15 minutes where Seattle looked the most likely to get on the board, the physical play did indeed lead to the free kick that Atuesta scored, and shortly after a great save from Stefan Frei was all that kept LAFC from stretching their lead from 1- to 2-0. Shaken, distracted, unnerved by the difficulty of even the simplest plays LAFC tried to relieve some pressure only to see Arreaga head their clearance to the feet of Jordan Morris. Seconds later, Golazo! Nothing but net from Ruidiaz and the score was level.
Once Raul had equalized it seemed like LA were getting nervous, at which point they’d already lost. By the time they could even catch their breath Lodeiro had beaten Tyler Miller and taken the lead for the Sounders. Rather than drop back or try to play not to give up another goal at that point, Seattle pressed even harder. Seattle would get their third goal in the second half, and created their fare share of opportunities in addition. Stefan Frei was only forced into a couple of relatively easy saves, while slightly better finishing from a number of Sounders players could have made the scoreline even more lopsided.
Schmetzer flexed again and again as the game wore on, as each of his well-used subs strengthened the team and his game plan. He trusted his players and put them in position to succeed, bringing on Delem for Jones and pushing Roldan out wide to improve the defense throughout the midfield while allowing Morris to continue to run at the defense and putting Roldan in even better positions to threaten. Bringing on Nouhou ensured that Morris avoided injury while locking down the left side of the field and forcing LAFC to deal with his speed for the better part of 20 minutes, and swapping Smith for Torres allowed the Sounders to close out the game by moving to a 3-back formation that effectively shut down the opposition front-3 and gave Nouhou the kind of freedom necessary to finally almost get a goal.
The announcers were shocked, couldn’t believe it was real! One more second was all that remained, Nouhou ran with the ball and they put them to shame. Bradley cried like a baby, the fans went nuts. I know it seems like a dream, but that’s how Brian beat Bob.