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Two sides of the same coin: An MLS Cup tactics preview

Seattle and Toronto have forged different identities fighting through similar adversity.

Kayla Mehring/Sounder at Heart

Every good rivalry needs a rubber match. In the case of the Seattle Sounders versus Toronto FC, Round 3 is the deciding contest nobody saw coming. After both sides took one MLS Cup apiece from back-to-back finals matchups in 2016 and 2017, the embers from the two-way duel for MLS supremacy were largely smothered by historically great seasons from expansion sides Atlanta United and LAFC in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

Now, in an interesting twist of fate, the Sounders and Toronto have both pulled off massive conference finals upsets by respectively beating LAFC and Atlanta United on the road, proving that the old guard won’t give the keys to their respective conferences over to the new kids on the block quite so easily.

In a lot of ways Seattle and Toronto are two sides of the same coin. Both teams caught the early wave of the MLS expansion boom, both teams’ ambition (in money spent and trophies won) have ushered in a new era of MLS, and both teams have put their usually U.S. media-ignored cities indelibly on the sports map (at least for soccer). Though the Sounders have won more consistently than Toronto and dominate in average attendance, Toronto reached the higher peak of the two when they won Supporters’ Shield, MLS Cup, and the Canadian Championship in 2017.

Beyond similar histories, the two clubs’ 2019 campaigns have also followed remarkably similar trajectories. Both teams started hot, taking 10 of the first 12 available points before their seasons were beset from roughly mid-April to mid-August by injuries, international call-ups, and generally inconsistent play. After the summer, both teams regained their form and averaged an identical 1.89 ppg over the final nine games of the season.

Furthermore, in the playoffs, the two clubs have each come under mild fire for embracing a more pragmatic, less aesthetically pleasing approach to their matches. (Seattle were entirely out-possessed in their last two contests while Toronto were largely out-shot in theirs.) And while it’s true that neither team has played on the front foot recently, it’s also true that both teams’ have taken subtle but key risks to outscore their opponents in the first three rounds.

It’s in these small margins — when and where the teams press, how often and in what positions they send numbers forward, and the different ways their subs change matches — that Seattle and Toronto start to look like very different teams. It’s also in these margins that the Cup will be won or lost.

The Toronto press

For as much time as Toronto spent pinned in their own half weathering a barrage of shots against Atlanta and NYCFC, Greg Vanney’s team actually came into both matches with a fairly aggressive defensive shape.

Toronto’s press. High pressure up the field creates opportunities to turn opponents over but also leaves gaps in front of and behind back five.

Playing a potentially rusty NYCFC coming off two and a half weeks rest on a matchbox-sized field allowed Toronto to punch their hosts in the mouth by pressing their wingers high and wide to force NYCFC to the middle of the field where Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado were waiting, also high up the pitch, to disrupt buildup. Though they didn’t score through that press in the first half, they did shake NYCFC enough that the Pigeons switched to a diamond in the midfield in order to regain supremacy in the middle of the park. That move proved temporarily successful but ultimately was too-little-too-late. The home team conceded twice in the second half to lose the game: once by capitulating to Toronto’s press and once by a poor defensive decision possibly caused by the fatigue that comes from pressing for a goal in a 4-4-2 diamond.

Against Atlanta, a team with a much larger home pitch and two of the most dynamic and high-priced attacking midfielders in the game, Toronto’s press was picked apart early and often, and the Canadian side should have been down two in the first 10 minutes. Atlanta cut through Toronto by playing long, sometimes over the top of the very high back and sometimes only over the top of the midfield where Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez could pick up the ball up underneath the back line and overload Michael Bradley, Toronto’s lone holding mid. Escaping the press allowed Atlanta’s fullbacks, especially Franco Escobar, to move high in attack and force Toronto’s wingers to defend deep, essentially pinning Toronto into a deep shell that they didn’t have the pace to play out of.

Interestingly, Atlanta failed to force the issue once they had Toronto on the ropes and were surprisingly stagnant in their movement off the ball and in their pressing up the field. Toronto took advantage by nicking a goal on the counter thanks to late subs Richie Laryea and Nick DeLeon, whose pace and 1-v-1 ability have caught opponents off guard late in matches throughout the playoffs.

Ultimately both Atlanta and NYCFC found ways through Toronto’s press, one by bypassing the midfield and one by overloading it. Still, Toronto have proved surprisingly adept at tracking back and weathering storms once they’re played through. Moreover, their press can prove deadly to teams who are sloppy in build out.

The Seattle press

At times, Seattle sit so deep that it’d be easy to quip that they have no press. But that would be untrue. Just ask LAFC, who were harangued by a backtracking Raul Ruidiaz and Nico Lodeiro all night and also caught very off-guard when Seattle did step higher up the pitch.

To understand what makes Seattle’s press so hard to deal with, one must first appreciate how hard it is to break down their patient, well-organized banks of four, which have become something of a staple in the Brian Schmetzer era.

Seattle’s disciplined mid to low blocks of four make it hard for opponents to play through middle of the field. Opponents’ lateral or backwards passes can trigger a much higher press (represented by yellow arrows). When Seattle don’t trigger the press, their deep shape allows opponents high volume of possession and opportunities to advance down wings.

When Seattle gets behind the ball they tend to drop into a 4-4-2 shape that usually gets progressively harder to break down as their season wears on and the team finds more cohesion through their midfield and backline. In this shape, Cristian Roldan and Gustav Svensson patrol the middle of the park and break up any cute dribbling or one-two passing combos by tackling (usually the ball, but sometimes the man) hard. Kim Kee-Hee and Xavier Arreaga (or Roman Torres) sit behind the two center-mids, just deep enough to not get beat over the top but just close enough to step and tackle any balls into a striker’s feet, once again, hard (see turnover that led to Seattle’s second goal verse LAFC). If an opposing team tries to play for too long in the middle of the park in front of Roldan and Svensson, Ruidiaz and Lodeiro will back press and, in case you’re not getting this, tackle, hard (see turnover prior to Seattle’s third goal against LAFC).

That leaves the only potential space into the Sounders’ third down the wings, where Seattle allows a bit more room in order to keep the center of the park compact. All a team has to do to exploit that space is make it past two of the more athletic wide midfielders in the league (one who was an MLS all-star level defender earlier in his career, the other a former MLS rookie-of-the-year with a new found love for tracking back), and then bypass two of the top fullbacks in MLS who both have top-flight European experience.

All of that may be enough to force a team to simply play backward and invite Seattle forward in order to break their shape. As it turns out, LAFC tried that, and Seattle reacted with a perfectly executed a trigger to press in which Ruidiaz and Lodeiro stepped all the way to LAFC’s keeper/centerbacks, and the rest of the team got tight to a man and easily won the ensuing LAFC long ball (see turnover that led to Seattle’s first goal).

The best chance to break through Seattle? Be clinical on counter-attacks, interchange expertly throughout the midfield and attacking lines to disorganize the team’s banks of four, and be ruthless on the set pieces gained through accomplishing those first two goals (see Dallas against Seattle in the first round).

Toronto’s overloads

Just as Toronto press higher than a first glance at playoff box scores might suggest, they also like to keep possession and use their interchanging movement on and off the ball to break down teams more than their bend-but-don’t-break playoff performances imply.

Toronto’s dynamic off ball movement that lead to goal verse Atlanta. Yellow arrows show runs off the ball. Dashed yellow line shows final pass from Ciman to Benezet.

The team finished top five in the league in possession, and though they were out-possessed by NYCFC and Atlanta it’s worth noting that they still had more of the ball in each of those games than Seattle did against either LAFC or Real Salt Lake. That stat becomes even more significant when considering Seattle dominated much of their matches against LAFC and Real Salt Lake, whereas Toronto were outplayed for large portions of their conference semi-final and final. In other words, Seattle not having the ball was largely according to their plan; Toronto not having the ball was not a part of theirs.

Without Jozy Altidore in the lineup, Toronto become even more ball reliant as they play Alejandro Pozuelo as a “false 9” and Tsubasa Endoh and Nicolas Benezet as creative, interchanging wingers. That lineup lacks pace and power but, when combined with the dynamic movement of Delgado and Osorio and the deep-lying playmaking ability of Michael Bradley, is more than capable of passing and moving a team into knots to create space where individual skill can thrive. The best example of this came in the team’s first goal against Atlanta United.

Even with Jozy Altidore in the lineup, Toronto can still put opponents in the blender with a bevy of interchanging players, led by Pozuelo’s creative off-ball running. The best way to keep Toronto from getting into a groove in the attack is to send enough runners forward that the Eastern Conference champs have to drop into a shell. If that can’t happen, then opposing defenses must be incredibly switched on mentally with great communication and organization in passing off runners.

Seattle’s overloads

Seattle is the best team at attacking down the wings in the league. In Jordan Morris and Joevin Jones, they have wingers who create problems with their speed and can provide excellent service on crosses. In Brad Smith and Kelvin Leerdam, they have fullbacks with excellent quality in the final third who combined for five goals and eight assists in the regular season.

To say Seattle overloads the wide areas would probably be an understatement. This is especially true when Lodeiro also starts to drift wide and get in on the action. Thanks to Lodeiro’s affinity for going left when he drifts, Seattle has garnered a reputation as a very one-sided team. Statistically this is true. The team is first in the league in attacking down the left and 16th in the league in attacking down the right. Still, that stat overshadows the larger and more important truth: Seattle are second to last in the league in attacking down the middle. In other words, Seattle may prefer the left to the right, but throughout the season, they loathed going down the middle.

Lodeiro is the hub of the of the Sounders counter attack that features dynamic running in behind by all four of Seattle’s wide players. The threat of Seattle’s speed allows Ruidiaz and Lodeiro to feast in the space underneath the stretched back line.

But if Seattle being a left-side dominant team overshadows the truth that they’re really a wing dominant team, then their being a wing dominant team may actually overshadow an even deeper, more recent truth: they love to get in behind.

The pace and quality of Seattle’s four wide starters allows the team to attack in unpredictable waves down the sides of the field, but ever since Victor Rodriguez went down to injury and Harry Shipp lost his rotational starter status to Roldan on the wing and then Jones, the team actually hasn’t created as many wide overloads as they used to. That’s because Rodriguez and Shipp thrived on tucking inside while Lodeiro drifted wide to meet one of them along with an overlapping full back and create a three-man triangle.

These days Seattle don’t keep enough of the ball to make that happen, and as such their wide play is less reliant on overloads than it is on straight line speed coming from any of the four wide players and sometimes Ruidiaz. Subsequently, Lodeiro stays much more central and build-out play often goes through the middle of the park before unleashing a wide player or Ruidiaz in behind the defense. In the Sounders’ new system, attacking with width is less important than attacking with speed, and if Morris or Jones tucks inside to get behind a team’s back line, or the team goes directly to Ruidiaz through the middle, that suits the squad just fine. When backlines inevitably drop too deep for fear of runners in behind, Seattle can attack with Lodeiro or Roldan from underneath.

Everything Seattle does in attack is predicated on using their speed to stretch opponents’ back lines. They have enough pace and quality moving forward that it’s nearly impossible to stop. Opposing teams’ only choices are to sit in very deep defensive banks to limit space behind and in front of their backlines, or they can press with such intensity that they stop service into the attack.

Conclusion (with a spare thought for bench play)

Toronto like to press high, win the ball in their opponents’ half, and attack by creating dynamic movement and interchange in possession. Seattle stay compact behind the ball, suffocate the middle of the pitch, and attack with ruthless speed in transition. The contrasting styles offer an intriguing match up, especially considering the team that likes the ball is on the road and the team that hits more often on the counter is at home.

On the one hand, Seattle just beat an LAFC team away from home who have a similar style to Toronto (and a better pedigree). Meanwhile, the Eastern Conference champs struggled to get by easier opponents whose styles are wildly different than Seattle’s. Advantage rave green.

On the other hand, Toronto just got a lot of tape on how Seattle goes after an attack-first team with a deep-lying playmaker, fluid midfield, and dynamic “false 9”, while Seattle will have to prep for a team that has struggled through much of the playoffs and has a coach who is unafraid to throw a preemptive tactical curve ball. Advantage the red team.

Further complicating matters is that both teams have options on the bench who have extremely contrasting styles to their recently preferred starters. Seattle’s attacking midfield subs, Rodriguez and Shipp (or Roldan if Delem slides into holding mid and Roldan moves out wide), have less to offer than the starters for pace but more to offer in terms of dynamic interchange and possession. Toronto’s attacking subs, DeLeon, Laryea (attack minded fullback), and Patrick Mullins may not have the same combination skill that as their regular starters but have better skill/pace/power to overwhelm a worn out back line.

The strength and diversity of both teams’ benches has been hard earned through their separate struggles with injuries and absences throughout the season. In that sense, their shared strength in depth remains a testament to all that the two clubs do have in a common: experienced coaches, veteran rosters laden with savvy leadership, and a ruthless penchant for punishing those who underestimate them.

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