MLS Cup 2016: TFC, Sounders present unique tactical challenges

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

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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.

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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.