Left: Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP | Right: AP Photo/David Zalubowski

MLS Cup 2016: TFC, Sounders present unique tactical challenges

Leave a comment

When Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders kick off MLS Cup 2016 at BMO Field next Saturday (8 p.m. ET), it’ll be the first time a postseason final is contested without any of the league’s original franchises on the field.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Everyone who’s watched a minute of these MLS Cup Playoffs will be familiar with the stars — Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley for TFC; Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Osvaldo Alonso for the Sounders — but it’s so often one of the unsung heroes on whom, given their tactical assignment, the game really hinges.

With that, a few early thoughts on areas that each side should/will look to exploit, and where they’ll be at their most vulnerable…

TFC will struggle with… Lodeiro, the nomad. Lodeiro is a brilliant player, which is quite apparent after watching him for five minutes. It’s the Uruguayan’s versatility and perfectly-rounded game that will trouble the TFC midfield and defense in MLS Cup — he’ll start on the left, through the center, or on the right, but by the end of the evening in Toronto, he’ll have covered every zone on the field, and probably have created a chance or two from each of them. As we’ll discuss in just a moment, so much of TFC’s game plan will be to limit the impact of Seattle’s wide attackers, whoever they may be on the night, which could see Lodeiro directed to play something closer to a permanent central role. He’ll wander around the field anyway, in search of time and space on the ball, and the second TFC allow him to roam free in a patch of the field devoid of red shirts, that’ll be their first, and perhaps biggest, mistake of the year.

Sounders will struggle with… Morrow and Beitashour getting forward. Since TFC made the switch to three at the back, with a few weeks left in the regular season, Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour have become impossibly important to a side which boasts the likes of Giovinco, Bradley and Altidore. (That’s MLS for you, though, right?) Relieved of much of their defensive-third duties, they’re now being asked to do more pressing in the middle third of the field when defending, and bomb further forward in possession. During the spells in which TFC had success against the Montreal Impact, Piatti and Dominic Oduro were pinned deep inside their own half by the TFC wing backs, rendering a truly great counter-attack just about useless.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Guzan reportedly considering move to MLS this winter ]

TFC will excel when… Altidore goes head-to-head with Marshall. The Altidore we’ve witnessed throughout these playoffs, in which he became the first player in MLS history to score a goal in five straight games during the same postseason, is a player we’ve never seen before. At his best, which is the present day, Altidore displays the kind of hold-up play, vision, passing ability and mobility that allows Giovinco to thrive. When Altidore occupies both center back, or a center back and a defensive midfielder, his gravity is what provides Giovinco the time and space he needs. Next Saturday, it’ll be vitally important for TFC for Altidore to tangle with Chad Marshall as frequently as possible. Marshall and Roman Torres, Seattle’s other center back, are mountainous men who can’t turn direction or accelerate well enough to recover once Giovinco gets the half-yard of space he so desperately desires. The man who can give that to him is Altidore.

Sounders will excel when… Morris pushes high, into the channels. Here’s a little secret about Morris that not many people are talking about: he’s hasn’t actually played center forward for the majority of the postseason. Sure, he’s an auxiliary second striker playing underneath Nelson Valdez, but he’s also been asked to do a ton of the grunt work in midfield, and the make the sacrificial runs into the channels to create space for Valdez and, most notably, Lodeiro. The 22-year-old rookie was rewarded with goals in both legs of the conference finals, but he’ll be a strictly functional part in the Seattle machine with three across the back. He’ll spend a lot more time occupying the space behind the full back and just wide of the center back. If/when he’s able to pull Nick Hagglund and/or Eriq Zavaleta, the men who’ll flank Drew Moor in the middle, the dominoes will begin to fall for TFC, and they’ll have to be absolutely perfect with their defensive rotations, which they were anything but against Montreal.

USMNT eyeing the table as it kicks off training camp

Getty Images
Leave a comment

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) Goalkeeper Tim Howard‘s uniform was filled with grass stains after the first day of training camp.

And this was considered a light workout.

“Just getting everybody back together, getting a sweat,” Howard said Monday after the U.S. squad went through a roughly 60-minute workout. “Day by day, we’re just trying to add on to the pile, put some concepts in and get some understanding between players.”

What awaits the squad in resumption of the final round of World Cup qualifying is certainly a gantlet. They have a game against Trinidad and Tobago on June 8 in Commerce City and then at Mexico three days later.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

There’s little margin for error, with the U.S. currently in fourth place in the six-team standings. They have three home and three away matches remaining. The top three teams qualify, with the fourth-place squad going to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“We need to keep climbing that table. We feel like this is a good opportunity to do it,” said Howard, now with the Colorado Rapids and who will feel right at home with the Trinidad game on his turf at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “One game, that’s as far as you can look. You can’t look to next week or the week after or two months from now.”

For now, Howard will be coach Bruce Arena’s goalkeeper over Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath and Nick Rimando, who all were invited to camp. But it’s an ongoing evaluation.

“We have good goalkeepers here. That’s the least of my worries, to be honest,” Arena said.

Given the short amount of time between games, Arena fully plans on using more players than usual. One particular competition to watch will be at right back between Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin.

“I have a close eye on everything,” Arena said. “We have a bunch of good players here. … We’re watching everybody and thinking about how we can best utilize everyone.”

[ MORE: Kroenke, Wenger meet; Decision looms ]

The roster features a solid blend of youth and experience. Leading the youngsters is Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder who last weekend became the youngest American to win a club medal in Europe.

On the veteran side are players such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Howard, all of whom have more than 30 World Cup qualifying appearances.

“We’re past the experimentation phase. These are all guys who the manager believes in whole-heartedly,” Howard said. “They’re not here for anything other than to play minutes, play important minutes.”

Arena couldn’t agree more.

“This is a nice group we have here. Hopefully, we can find the right balance in the team, putting them in the right position to complement them both individually and collectively,” Arena said. “If we can accomplish that, there’s no reason to believe we can’t be successful in these two games.”

Joining the camp in Colorado are a few players who weren’t with the squad in March. Guzan, Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood and Yedlin are all on the field. Guzan didn’t participate because his wife was expecting their second child, while the others were dealing with injuries, illnesses and yellow-card suspension.

Now, it’s a matter of getting their timing down – and accustomed to the altitude.

“There’s no reason to make it an excuse,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “Just doing the best we can to acclimate to it.”

Arena’s squad will get things rolling in a friendly against Venezuela in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.

“That’s a good game for us,” Arena said. “It gives us a little bit of exercise at lower altitude, which isn’t perfect for what we need to do to get ready here and Mexico City, but it’s a start. Think it will be good to give a chance to 16 players and build from there – get us ready for Trinidad and Mexico.”

Stam after Reading playoff final loss: “Tough to take”

Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jaap Stam has won silverware in three different leagues for five different teams, and has a Champions League title from his time at Manchester United.

He’s used to winning, and that includes his first stop as a full-time manager. And that makes Reading’s loss in Monday’s playoff final sting a bit more.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

Reading lost in penalty kicks and it’s not like the Royals were thoroughly outclassed by Huddersfield Town. But it still burns. From Sky Sports:

“You don’t want to play football to be in the grey areas, you want to get the max out of your career, win trophies and play at the highest level.

“It’s tough to take, but it has to be difficult. It’s not good to lose a game like this, you need to feel it and experience it and then take that forward if you get into the same moment again. The good players do that.”

Reading loses a trio of loan players — Lewis Grabban, Reece Oxford, and Jordon Mutch — as well as American midfielder Danny Williams. It won’t be easy for Reading to get back into the playoffs without an injection of money, but Stam’s first rodeo as a manager was a good ride that came up just short.

Wenger, Kroenke meet; Board to learn decision Tues.

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Wenger watch is entering its final hours.

The BBC is reporting that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke met with longtime manager Arsene Wenger on Monday to discuss the Frenchman’s future, and that the decision was going to be made together.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

It seems almost certain that Wenger is going to come back to the Emirates Stadium. From the BBC:

The outcome is unclear but the decision rests solely with Wenger and Kroenke and will be relayed to directors at a Tuesday board meeting.

Fresh terms were agreed in principle some months ago, but nothing is signed.

There have been questions about whether Wenger would accept a sporting director being placed above him, and if Kroenke believes the repercussions of keeping the boss would negatively impact the business.

Barcelona to keep goalkeeper Ter Stegen until 2022

Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
Leave a comment

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has reached a deal to extend the contract of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen until June 2022.

The club said the new agreement, which has a buyout clause of 180 million euros ($201 million), will be signed on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

Ter Stegen has been with the club since 2014, helping it win nine titles in three seasons.

The German goalkeeper has played 93 matches with Barcelona, conceding 90 goals in 71 wins, 10 draws and 12 losses.

Barcelona has already renewed the contracts of Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. It is still working on new deals for Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.