Were you to take a time machine back to July, when the Sounders were floundering for form at the bottom of the Western Conference, Sounders fans would’ve been contrite. Quite frankly, there wasn’t much optimism to spread around in those dim days.
Offer those fans a road to the playoffs and they would’ve been ecstatic. Offer them a spot in the MLS Cup final? I dare say you would’ve been met with a fair bit of skepticism.
And yet here we are, verging on the biggest game in MLS franchise history after the worst start in MLS franchise history. If you’re still trying to catch your breath after the last four months of madness, join the club.
Saturday’s MLS Cup final against Toronto FC at BMO Field offers a handful of irresistible matchups. From the league office’s point of view, it’s easy to imagine proverbial heel clicks all the way to kickoff. There are mega-stars on both sides, smart coaches pulling the strings, young domestic players taking part and, most likely, plenty of goals to be had. It many ways it’s a dream scenario for the tactically reformed version of the league its arbiters hope to promote.
But what are those matchups? And how do the Sounders fare? Let’s take a look as this game of impossible enormity draws near.
Stefan Frei vs. Clint Irwin
When the Colorado Rapids jettisoned Clint Irwin in a trade before the 2016 season, Rapids fans were miffed. Irwin was a fan favorite and backstopped one of the league’s most robust defenses the year before. We know now the Rapids were clearing out cargo to make way for Tim Howard, but Irwin quickly settled in Toronto and won the starting job.
Irwin is a fine keeper, and he’s had to clean up a few of the messes created by the TFC back line this year. But he’s prone to an occasional lapse in judgment, and while he’s a great organizer he tends to blink off at inopportune times. Stefan Frei, meanwhile, seemed to get all of his jitters out of the way early this year. Frei’s shaky start to 2016 soon smoothed and gave way to another outstanding year, so much so that we hardly ever talk about him. Irwin is a good keeper, but on current form Frei is simply that much better.
Sounders defense vs. TFC offense
This one was close. And as much as I like Seattle’s defense and their current form, it’s hard to argue with any front line led by Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.
Because in the end it was more about TFC’s quality than anything negative on Seattle’s end. Chad Marshall and Roman Torres form one of the better one-two combinations in the league, and Seattle can push numbers behind Joevin Jones and Tyrone Mears. But the Altidore-Giovinco pairing belongs in the league’s record books as perhaps the best of all time.
In the playoffs alone, Altidore and Giovinco combined for nine goals and eight assists so far. Both of those numbers are more than the Sounders’ entire team totals through the same number of playoff games. The fact that both can drop in and pull defenders from their castle walls makes TFC not only dangerous, but unpredictable. Their mobility hurts, too.
On form like this, the Sounders have never faced an attack humming with this much speed in 2016. Not even the midseason LA Galaxy were destroying back lines like this. As good as Seattle’s defense is, a shutout has never been more difficult.
Midfield vs. Midfield
This is probably the most even midfield battle the Sounders will see all year. Both teams have tempo-generators who like to sit in the pocket and go on occasional foraging runs (Michael Bradley and Osvaldo Alonso). Both have capable possession recyclers sitting alongside to break up attacks and prod their counterparts (Will Johnson and Cristian Roldan).
The difference is Nicolas Lodeiro.
U.S. Men’s National Team fans will be familiar with Bradley’s role on Saturday. Unlike Alonso, Bradley won’t stay in the hole in front of the back line, preferring to go on jaunts from box to box to find the game. That inevitably leaves the other two in the 3-5-2 - against Montreal it was Johnson and Armando Cooper - deeper to deal with that space. Which means Lodeiro will often be heads up on them, and not Bradley.
The Cooper-Lodeiro battle should be of interest, and the most important for the fate of the match. Cooper is an instigator, like a constant drip of water on the forehead. He’s no stranger of the hard tactical foul, and given Lodeiro’s ability the two will almost certainly clash at some point, if not frequently. The Sounders have the edge here, but if Cooper’s constant impingement gets the better of Lodeiro, chances might be limited.
Sounders attack vs. TFC defense
Nobody questions the vitality of TFC’s front line. As is it’s probably the best we’ve seen in MLS in some time, if not ever. But it’s also covered up for the team’s defensive frailties, which were brought to the fore in the Eastern Conference Final. A Montreal team with the worst goal-scoring record of any playoff team in the East put five goals on TFC over two legs, including two at BMO Field.
The problem has generally been with the spacing and communication between the three center backs in the 3-5-2. Eriq Zavaleta, Drew Moor and Nick Hagglund are good together, but with fullbacks often living in the opposing half TFC is prone to mistakes and poor recognition in transition. The Sounders with Lodeiro are kings of switching from defending to attacking in a blink, which is the precise area where TFC falters defensively.
TFC in its current defensive construct doesn’t do well with speed in space, which is why Dominic Oduro was able to have so much success in front of creative wizard Ignacio Piatti. The Sounders have their own one-two creator-speed combo in Lodeiro and Jordan Morris, even if the latter plays wide in favor of Nelson Valdez on Saturday. With Morris pinching inside and Lodeiro finding room, that’s a hard combination for any back line to stop, let alone one that’s been struggling.
Brian Schmetzer vs. Greg Vanney
In reality, there’s precious little space separating these two coaches from one another, if there even is any in the first place.
Both captained their respective ships to this stage, albeit through vastly different means of operation. Vanney’s tinkered with his lineup sheet this year, putting different pieces into different roles to see how they fit. He ultimately stretched his lineup and settled on the three-man back line, the newly vogue formation in world soccer. And credit Vanney, despite some vulnerabilities he spun it into gold.
Schmetzer’s had far less time to push his seal into the wax, but his work has been no less impressive. Whereas Vanney settled on his formation relatively late, Schmetzer’s used his tried-and-true 4-2-3-1 in every single match he’s coached since taking over on July 31. The Sounders have only lost three games since then, so the familiarity is clearing working.
In terms of sheer accomplishment, the Sounders had to overcome more to get here, but this is history for both clubs. Vanney’s the only coach to ever guide TFC to the postseason, let alone to the MLS Cup final. That puts the accomplishments of both men firmly on level pegging.