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Gustav Svensson: the Architect behind Seattle’s MLS Cup victory

The Swedish enforcer was in the right moment every time his team needed.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Don’t listen to the critics. The Seattle Sounders weren’t lucky or thoroughly outplayed. They won MLS Cup because the team played disciplined soccer that was ultimately rewarded with a couple of beautiful finishes.

I’m not here to claim the match was pretty. The nerves of playing in front of a record-breaking crowd appeared to cause some real issues early on. Poor giveaways. Sloppy possession. Not to mention, Toronto came out with a smart game plan that focused on overloading the midfield. Still, the Sounders remained organized defensively. They also had Gustav Svensson — the best Swedish player in the league — to provide some much-needed subtle swagger and keep Toronto away from the 18-yard box.

Before going further, I have a confession: defensive midfielders hold a special place in my heart. Unless they score, these midfielders rarely get named player of the match or earn any significant accolades. But they are regularly the glue that holds the team together, both offensively and defensively.

It is often said that you don’t really notice the best holding midfielders during a game, but if you keep your attention on them, you can see the entire match unfold before your eyes. That was true for Svensson.

Some games need a maestro who works magic every time they are on the ball. Others need speed to counter an organized opponent. And then there are matches, like this year’s MLS Cup, that simply needed an enforcer who wins the ball and finds the right teammate. Svensson provided all that and more.

As Realio shared in his MLS Cup Player Ratings, “Whenever Toronto broke through one line, Goose was there to offer a crunching tackle and escort them back to midfield. He was a pure force of destruction, rivaling any midfield performance we have seen this season.”

If we ever needed evidence that Svensson had the potential to come up so big during the Sounders’ playoff run, we should point to one of his quotes from earlier this year. When asked at the start of the season about the midfield partnership with Cristian Roldan and Nicolas Lodeiro, Svensson joked that his role was “to pick up all the horseshit and pretty much cover wherever they’re not, but, I mean I’ve been doing that my whole life.”

The no-nonsense midfielder described his role with wit that day, but he also wasn’t wrong. He covered the field behind Lodeiro and Roldan perfectly and picked up all the horse poop along the way.

Goose set the tone in the third minute with a smart interception, sneaking into the channel to steal a pass from Michael Bradley. He finished the game with 10 defensive recoveries, 7 tackles, 3 interceptions and 1 clearance — and conceded just one foul.

Just like his buddy Chad Marshall, Svensson’s game doesn’t rely on speed to be effective. It requires soccer smarts — the ability to anticipate his opponent’s move before they even play the ball. And it requires consistent movement into space in the midfield, preventing dangerous balls into the box and closing down passing options.

Here are just a few examples of how Svensson accomplished this in the first half of the match, as Seattle was scrambling to get its footing offensively. In the 15th minute, Svensson anticipated a ball into the box and blocked it out for a corner. In the 24th minute, he ran over to help Jordan Morris double team Alejandro Pozeulo — they collectively poked the ball away and regained possession.

Then, in the 34th minute, with Roman Torres still high up the pitch, Svensson dropped back to provide cover. He did well to anticipate a long ball to Jonathan Osorio and cut off the angle. He also showed that while speed doesn’t define him, Svensson still has plenty of it.

Svensson was a big reason the Sounders didn’t concede a goal in the first half, but it was the final 45 minutes where he truly shined. Shortly after Seattle scored thanks to a deflection on Kelvin Leerdam’s shot, Svensson made a great tackle — again on Pozuelo — to prevent a quick break from the visiting side.

If it wasn’t clear at this point that Goose was in Pozuelo’s head, this frustration shove right after the tackle made it obvious.

From here on out, it was the Svensson and Victor Rodriguez show — with the Swedish player serving as enforcer while the Spanish magician wove his way through helpless Toronto defenders. In the 75th minute, Svensson made a perfect tackle high up the field and sliced a pinpoint pass through traffic to Lodeiro. The Uruguayan one-touched the ball to Rodriguez, who sent in the game-winning goal with precision.

And when Jozy Altidore entered the match — changing how Seattle had to defend — it was Svensson yet again who calmly picked off a ball intended for the U.S. men’s national team forward. He launched the ball forward for Raul Ruidiaz, who muscled off his defender before putting Seattle up 3-0 in the 90th minute.

Again, we only had to hear Svensson’s words prior to the match to know this play was coming. During pre-MLS Cup interviews, the midfielder said, “I think we have to make sure we are compact, we have to make sure we don’t give Toronto too much space, they have good players. And we just have to give the ball to Raúl.”

Mission. Accomplished.

Last year, when the Reign fell to the Portland Thorns in the NWSL playoffs, Reign head coach Vlatko Andonovski said this about the Thorns star for the match, Lindsey Horan: “She’s the best at the beautiful game; she’s the best at the ugly game, too.”

It was the highest compliment — describing the adaptability of a player like Horan to react to the state of the game and impose her will. The same could be said about Svensson’s performance in the Sounders’ most important game of the season.

Victor Rodriguez deserved the MLS Cup MVP Award. He changed the game when he stepped onto the field. But if you re-watch the match and keep your eyes on Svensson, you’ll understand why Toronto struggled mightily to score and how much Seattle deserved that win.

The Horrible Goose is only horrible if you’re on the other side.

Next up: conquering Europe.

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EURO 2020

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