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Ace in the hole: How Victor Rodriguez dominated MLS Cup

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The brilliant creator was the game’s most important player in crunch time.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — Of all the soccer coaching clichés, “goals change games” is simultaneously one of the most vague and most overused. That’s probably because it acts as a catch-all for any tactical adjustments forced by a change in score while also accounting for the otherwise immeasurable change in much-vaunted “momentum.” In other words, the simple phrase could mean anything (or nothing), and is also almost always true.

In MLS Cup, where Kelvin Leerdam’s goal clearly marked a turning point in which the Sounders went from playing on the back foot to dominating a 20-minute spell that saw them double their lead and out-shoot Toronto 4-0, the more accurate phrase would be that Victor Rodriguez changed the game. The Spanish playmaker took control of the match almost immediately after subbing on and essentially squashed any chance of a Toronto comeback. Here’s how he did it:

The match pre-Victor

The first 25 minutes of the match went more or less according to plan for both managers. Toronto dealt body blows to Seattle via quick passing and interchange through the midfield while Seattle used good hold-up play and speed from their attackers to keep the threat of a haymaker counterattack alive. Toronto won possession, Seattle won shots, but ultimately both teams looked fairly comfortable and capable of scoring.

It wasn’t until the 26th minute that either team began to assert their will on the game. The play that began to turn momentum happened when Sounders midfielder Joevin Jones won the ball with a big tackle deep in his own half. After winning possession, Jones quickly found himself under pressure with limited forward outlets. As a possession-oriented player who is loath to clear the ball, he decided to try to dribble out of pressure and immediately gave the ball away to a counter-pressing Alejandro Pozuelo. From there, Toronto only needed two passes to get Michael Bradley a clean look at goal. Bradley’s shot from distance went harmlessly wide, but a clear problem had arisen: the Sounders were pinned too deep in their own end.

Though Seattle were able to create a few chances in the last 20 minutes, including a barrage of corners around the 33rd minute and a Ruidiaz counter-attack to close the half, the home team saw their possession drop from a manageable 37 percent to a problematic 32 percent while also failing to out-shoot Toronto over the same stretch. More concerning was the fact that Jones turned the ball over in his own end two more times before half, once in the 30th minute to give Toronto a corner and once in the 36th minute to set up a very dangerous shot on target from Nicolas Benezet.

At halftime, head coach Brian Schmetzer had Jones and Jordan Morris switch sides and step higher up the field, allowing the Sounders more outlets for playing out of pressure. At first, the move appeared to backfire as Toronto took advantage of the extra space in the midfield to apply even more forward pressure as they out-shot Seattle 3-0 and had more 70 percent of the ball in the second half’s first 10 minutes. Ultimately though, the move paid off when Cristian Roldan won a crucial duel in the midfield that allowed Jones to get on the ball higher up the field. Jones then completed three passes in a brilliant Seattle buildup that led to the match’s first goal.

The match post-Victor

Even before Seattle scored, Rodriguez was preparing to enter the match, presumably to give the team a better outlet to possess the ball higher up the field. Jones had done well with his one clear chance to advance the ball from midfield in the second half, but the overall trend of play had still favored Toronto. The Sounders needed somebody with the quick movement and technical ability necessary to play in between Toronto’s aggressive midfield and backline.

That role suited the fleet-footed playmaker perfectly. From the time he entered the game in the 60th minute to when he scored in the 76th minute, Rodriguez attempted 12 passes, second only to Nico Lodeiro and twice as many as any other Sounder in that period. Those passes took place in every quadrant of the field as he and Lodeiro roamed freely to overwhelm Bradley, Toronto’s lone holding mid.

Touch map for Rodriguez and Lodeiro from time when Rodriguez entered the match to when he scored.

The duo combined brilliantly to nearly earn a corner in the 66th minute in what should have been a warning shot for Toronto to drop another midfielder deep alongside Bradley. Given another chance to overload Bradley in the 76th minute (on a play that started with Rodriguez magically maintaining possession despite being double-teamed in the corner of the field) Lodeiro and Rodriguez made no mistake with a perfect interchange to put Seattle up 2-0.

In the end, every Sounder played a part in their commanding 3-1 win — from the back line defending every wave of Toronto’s attacking onslaught nearly perfectly, to Roldan and Svensson winning crucial duels that led to goals, to Morris and Ruidiaz running tirelessly to provide outlets and relieve pressure. Still, it was Rodriguez’s ability to play between lines that provided the key tactical change of the match.

If “goals change games” is the ultimate cliché in soccer, then “winning the first 15 minutes after a goal” is the equally coach-quoted line that actually matters. Thanks to Victor Rodriguez, the Sounders did exactly that and walked away as deserved champions.