MLS

Analysts around Major League Soccer weigh in on the 2016 MLS Cup Final

Heading into the 2016 MLS Cup Final between the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC on Saturday, Dec. 10 (5 p.m. PT; FOX, TSN, UniMas, KIRO Radio 97.3 FM, El Rey 1360AM), at BMO Field in Ontario, Canada, SoundersFC.com caught up with a panel of MLS media members.


MLSSoccer.com’s Matt Doyle, ESPN’s Jeff CarlisleSports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl and The Toronto Sun’s Kurt Larson each offer their thoughts on what to expect on Saturday.




WHAT IS THE BIGGEST STORYLINE HEADING INTO 2016 MLS CUP?


DOYLE: I think it comes down to the starpower on display. Nicolas Lodeiro, Sebastian Giovinco, Osvaldo Alonso, Michael Bradley, Roman Torres, Jozy Altidore and on down the list. I do think it’s the names involved that end up being the above-the-fold part of this story.


CARLISLE: It’s about the two playmakers: Lodeiro and Giovinco. I’m hopeful that not only their signings but the way they’ve been able to excel is a sign that MLS is moving beyond the aging stars and moving toward getting guys in their primes. We’ll see how much the condition and the occasion allows them to show their best, but that’s a great sign about the maturation of the league.


WAHL: I do my Ambition Rankings every year for SI.com, and Seattle and Toronto are always right near the top. Neither one has won an MLS Cup before, much less gotten to a final. For one team, it’s going to be about ambition realized. I like to see the ambitious teams succeeding on the field. That hasn’t always been the case. You want to see ambition rewarded, and for one of these teams that has been waiting for quite a while now, that’s going to happen.



LARSON: How quickly Toronto FC sold out BMO Field. Toronto FC after years of telling everybody that MLS could be really big in this city and as big as the Toronto Raptors and the Blue Jays, and maybe even the Maple Leafs one day, finally there was a way to prove that there was some truth to that. As soon as TFC qualified for MLS Cup and learned it was going to host the event, the tickets went on sale to the general public on Monday. Nine thousand were left after season-ticket holders snatched up 20,000 or so, and they sold out in a matter of seconds. Ticketmaster either went down or crashed or couldn’t hold the volume of people interested in getting tickets, most of whom were from the Toronto area or scattered around Canada and wanted to fly in for the game. When you think about MLS and where it was 10 to 20 years ago, you can never really imagine a day where in an MLS city, maybe outside of Seattle or some of the bigger markets, where there would be this much demand for an MLS Cup. The event is going to be massive in general before you even talk about the game.

WHAT ARE THE TWO TEAMS’ STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES?


DOYLE: I feel like Seattle plays very differently on the road than they do at home under head coach Brian Schmetzer. While that obviously has worked for them, there’s a certain way you approach this Toronto team in terms of overloading that central zone where Bradley works that pays dividends. I don’t know if that is conducive to what Schmetzer has had his team doing when they play away from CenturyLink Field.


For Toronto’s case, I think what they’re going to want to do is get those outside backs up the field as far as possible, but at the same time they have to do a better job of preventing those breakouts in the other direction that Montreal annihilated them with.


There are some obvious strengths and weaknesses for both teams, but both teams have also changed so much over the last couple of months. It’s a weird MLS Cup because I can’t tell you exactly everything there is to know about these two teams, whereas last year, [between the Portland Timbers and Columbus Crew SC] it was obvious. The year before that [between the LA Galaxy and New England Revolution] was mostly pretty obvious. The year before that [between Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake] it was painted in 12-foot-tall letters that nobody could miss what the two teams were about. Just because these two teams have changed formations and focal points and everything else down the list, even over the last two or three months. There’s a lot that is left to question.



CARLISLE: I think Seattle’s biggest weakness is trying to play the ball out of the back. They got exposed a little bit in that second game in Colorado and they even got exposed a little bit against Kansas City. If teams apply pressure in the right moments they can, at a minimum, force Seattle to play the ball long. It’ll be interesting to see to what extent Toronto tries to do that.


I also think Toronto is susceptible in the back. They have leaked a lot of goals in these playoffs. I can’t remember a team that gave up five goals in a two-leg series and won. It’s going to be a case of who can impose their will on the other.


For Seattle, they have to make use of some of their effectiveness on the flanks, whether it’s a guy like Joevin Jones getting forward or utilizing a guy like Jordan Morris out wide to get him isolated. It’s not like Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour are bad defenders, they’re good defenders, but Toronto loves to get those guys forward and that’s a big part of their attack. If Seattle can occupy [space higher up the field] and force those guys to defend a little more, it’ll be to the Sounders’ advantage.


WAHL: Lodeiro is such a giant influence on the game, and for Seattle to win this game, he’ll have to [do that] again. Jordan Morris has had a terrific rookie season, maybe some ups and downs, but more ups than downs lately. I see him as a real strength as well. Getting Roman Torres back has helped the back line of Seattle too.


I picked Toronto before the season to win MLS Cup and the main reason was not so much their high-priced attacking talent, but they finally got good defensive pieces coming together with goalkeeper Clint Irwin coming in and Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour. That’s been true for most of the season. When you give up five goals to Montreal, you’re not exactly pitching a shutout, but for Toronto it’s important to be tighter in the back than they were against Montreal. Jozy Altidore is playing great right now. He’s playing the best soccer of his career right now. He’s really taking it up a notch.



LARSON: Toronto’s strength is its attackers, the players it paid big money for. Sebastian Giovinco probably should have been the MVP this year. Jozy Altidore is coming on strong, and people are going to say Lodeiro is up for contention too, but Jozy Altidore has been the best player over the second half of the season. He’s scored 15 goals in his last 19 games, including in five straight playoff games, which is a record in terms of a single playoffs.


Strengths for Seattle are a bit harder, and it’s not to take anything away from Seattle, but I’m not sure they do anything that scares Toronto FC. One of their strengths could be their ability to create things in and around the box with Lodeiro now. That is something you have to guard for, and of course there’s some speed on the wings with Jordan Morris. Their attack also can be dangerous, but it’s not nearly as dangerous as Toronto’s.


WHERE DO YOU THINK THE KEY MATCHUPS ON THE PITCH ARE GOING TO BE?


DOYLE: It’s going to be in that central midfield area. Seattle has to find a way to make Bradley sloppy and to make him play deep and defensively, and in so doing draw another one of those central midfielders whether it’s Armando Cooper or Will Johnson or Jonathan Osorio a little bit deeper. When Toronto does that, I don’t want to say they’re easy to stop, but they’re a little more predictable. With TFC going forward, it’s their ability to get Giovinco into that gap between the left back and the left central defender. If they can get Giovinco there, then I think Seattle is in trouble.


CARLISLE: The extent to which Toronto can keep track of Lodeiro is going to be a huge matchup. I remember Toronto struggling against the Red Bulls and Sacha Kljestan. He’s a mobile, slippery attacker, and I’m not saying Lodeiro is the same player exactly, but he’s mobile. He’s going to force guys like Michael Bradley and Will Johnson to make decisions. It’s going to be interesting to see the extent to which Bradley gets sucked out of the middle. That’s where I think Will Johnson will be a key component for Toronto because he’s a guy who’s an honest defender and can shoulder some of that defensive burden that sometimes falls on Bradley.



WAHL: I look at Altidore versus Torres as potentially a lot of fun. Those are two guys who are very physical, but Altidore has this other dimension that he’s showing of the skill in the box. Ozzie Alonso against Michael Bradley. Alonso has had a wonderful year and unfortunately wasn’t rewarded with a Best XI place that he deserves, but Michael Bradley is so influential touching the ball for Toronto, so if Alonso can limit Bradley, that could have a big impact for Seattle.


LARSON: Jordan Morris on Nick Hagglund. There have been very few teams that have been able to hurt TFC down the stretch this season, and Montreal has been one of them simply because all three of their attacking players — Matteo Mancosu, Ignacio Piatti and Dominic Oduro — had fantastic speed with the ball and the ability to counterattack and exploit the spaces high and wide that TFC often leaves exposed because of their three-back system where its wingers get really high. An important matchup could be Jordan Morris, as long as he plays on the wing, and if he tries to exploit the space Justin Morrow leaves open if he gets forward or even Steven Beitashour when he gets forward. If Seattle can find the gaps and find Morris in space in between the winger and the outside center back, that’s an area that they can exploit.


Lodeiro and Michael Bradley are going to have an interesting battle simply because Lodeiro likes to find the little spaces at the top of the penalty area or the midfield and back line that a defensive midfielder like Bradley is going to have to be aware of. He’s going to have to be looking over his shoulder at all times. Lodeiro’s movement is very good in front of the back line. Communication between TFC’s three center backs and a guy like Bradley is going to have to be pretty good because Bradley likes to take chances moving forward as well and he can often times lose a mark, so if Lodeiro can find space vacated by Bradley, then he’s going to be able to put TFC’s back three under pressure.


WHAT DO YOU THINK WILL BE X-FACTORS IN THIS MATCH?


DOYLE: Obviously the weather is going to play into it. I doubt that Roman Torres has ever played a game where it has been 25 degrees with wind chill dropping it even lower. I know Uruguay isn’t the tropics, but I doubt Lodeiro will have seen anything like he’ll see Saturday. That’s a big X-factor.


Another thing that’s a big X-factor is injuries. Toronto is coming into this game a lot healthier than Seattle. The third X-factor is Tosaint Ricketts. He has been a difference maker off the bench. He gives Toronto speed and penetration off the ball and the ability to stretch the field, which is something they objectively lacked throughout most of the season. Even though he’s not the cleanest player in the league, you can see the effect that he’s had in the way he’s opened up the game for Altidore and Giovinco.

CARLISLE: Armando Cooper is an X-factor for Toronto. He’s a guy who is pretty crafty on the ball. He popped up for a big goal in the series against Montreal. He’s stronger than he looks. He’s a guy who can ride a challenge. He doesn’t necessarily look that strong, but then you see close-ups of him. He can definitely keep the ball, shield it, pass it well. Toronto has those three guys in the center of the field in Bradley, Johnson and Cooper, so I think that Cooper is that crafty presence to link defense to attack.


Cristian Roldan is kind of an X-factor as well for the Sounders. Everyone knows about Ozzie Alonso, but they’re got a really good partnership there as holding midfielders. It’s going to be a big test for him, he’s a younger player, a second-year player. He’s done really well in the playoffs so far, but this is probably the biggest occasion of his career. It’s going to be interesting to see how he fares. He’s a guy who’s not only going to have to defend well, but he’s shown in the playoffs that he can get forward and create some havoc as well. If he can channel both of those responsibilities, it’s going to be advantage Seattle.


WAHL: For Seattle, Nelson Valdez. Will we see the Valdez of the regular season or the Valdez of the playoffs? If it’s the latter, that could push the balance to Seattle.


For Toronto, Giovinco’s health. If he’s at full strength, he can take over the game. It didn’t look good to see him go off the field the other night. He’s had some time to recover, but we’ll know very quickly once the whistle blows if we’ll be getting full Giovinco or something less.


LARSON: The environment at BMO Field. If Toronto didn’t have that support in the second leg against Montreal, I don’t think TFC would have gotten out of the Eastern Conference Championship. Michael Bradley told me something pretty interesting leading up to that game. He forecasted that it was going to be one of the best environments MLS has ever seen and the crowd was going to be so intense and so immense and so overwhelming for Montreal that TFC’s supporters were not going to let them lose that game. In the end, he was right.


One thing that Seattle has going for it is its ability to play as an underdog this season and outperform expectations in a way that nobody is expecting them to win on Saturday. You’d have to be either a superfan or someone who hasn’t followed this league for a long time to actually think that Seattle has a chance to win this game. Toronto FC is at home, they’re very good at home, they’ve pretty much been the best team in the league, even better than Seattle, in the second half of the season, there’s just no way Seattle should win this game. I think that’s going to play a little into Seattle’s hands. They’re coming in with no pressure, away from home, most of their fans won’t really expect them to win this game, so playing as an underdog on the road, if they can get through the first half maybe at 0-0, it’s going to help them down the stretch.


HOW DO YOU SLOW GIOVINCO AND LODEIRO?


DOYLE: You’ll watch a lot of game film of what Montreal did [to mitigate Giovinco] if you’re Seattle. I know Montreal gave up seven goals over two legs, but most of those were off of restarts or some sort of slop and very few actually came from anything involving Giovinco. What Montreal did so well was that they didn’t allow [Toronto] to play through [the Impact’s] central midfield. Their rotations were tight and quick and they worked together really well. If you can deny Giovinco those two-line passes, then you have a much better chance of containing him.


Lodeiro presents problems in a way that no one else in the league does, and obviously he’s a brilliant passer of the ball. His movement, especially coming off the wing, means you can’t just man-mark him. You have to do it uniformly throughout the midfield. He still has — and this is something I don’t think any No. 10 in the league has — the goalscorer or winger’s instincts to get forward and get in the box and finish what are really forward goals, not midfielder goals. I don’t know if there’s one great way to contain him. I thought that Sporting KC did the best job back in the Knockout Round. Toronto’s defensive shape is different and their defensive presence in central midfield is also really different. That’s a tough one for Greg Vanney to crack.


CARLISLE: You have to cut off the supply line to both. Lodeiro was pretty quiet in that second leg against Colorado because Seattle couldn’t get him the ball. That’s the best way to handle him. The same goes for Giovinco, but it’s going to be a little tougher. It’s not only going to ask a lot of Seattle’s back line, but Ozzie Alonso is going to have to really be aware of where Giovinco is.

Toronto is a little better in possession. The best thing for Seattle is to take Michael Bradley out of the game because he’s the guy who really starts the attack. You watch Toronto play, the center backs split, he comes back and gets the ball off them and then starts to carry it forward and then he can hit guys from distance. We’ll see to what extent a guy like Nelson Valdez maybe tries to take that option away and forces Toronto to try and build their attack in a little bit different manner.


WAHL: You hope it’s a cold night? I don’t know, it’s going to be really hard. A guy like Armando Cooper can have a lot of influence on [stopping] Lodeiro. And it’s not just one guy, you need to have multiple guys fixated on Lodeiro because it’s not just that he’s a great passer and he knows what he’s going to do with the ball well in advance of receiving it, it’s that he runs, he works. He’s not a Carlos Valderrama type who just never ran but had the passing ability. [Toronto has] to be able to track Lodeiro all over the field.


Altidore being on such a good run makes it tougher for defenses because you can’t just focus on Giovinco right now. For Seattle, to limit Giovinco’s influence, don’t give up set pieces to Toronto anywhere in your own half, especially when you’re in shooting range. Giovinco’s free-kick abilities are, as we’ve seen, just incredible. That’s something that can turn the game easily.


LARSON: If you’re Brian Schmetzer, you have to look at what Montreal did. What the Impact did and how they had success was they played an extremely defensive-minded midfielder in Marco Donadel, who did a great job staying put and keeping an eye on Giovinco and taking away the spaces Giovinco likes to collect balls in. What Montreal did was play a defensive-minded midfielder, clogged up a lot of the center of the park and didn’t leave much space for Giovinco to work in. Seattle needs to be physical and knock him off his game. He has a tendency to get frustrated with referees when things don’t go his way. You clog the spaces, you sit behind the ball, you always have first and second defenders and you be physical with your challenges.


For Greg Vanney, the way you slow down someone like Lodeiro or even Jordan Morris is you just have to not give them opportunities. The ways teams get their opportunites against Toronto FC is in transition. For TFC it’s about not giving the ball away in bad areas, it’s about always having numbers behind the ball, it’s about not overcommitting in the middle third of the field and always being in its set defense. When TFC’s been in its set defense, it doesn’t concede a lot of goals. If I’m Greg Vanney, I’m trying to guard against the counterattack, and if I’m Schmetzer, I’m trying to figure out ways to get after Toronto FC in transition like Montreal did because Montreal scored five times that way.  

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