For the third time in four seasons, the Seattle Sounders have advanced to MLS Cup. This time, they’ll be hosting their Eastern Conference rival, Toronto FC, in front of a sold-out crowd at CenturyLink Field.
How did the Sounders get here? It’s easy to look at the contributions of Raúl Ruidíaz and Nicolás Lodeiro, who combined for all three goals in Seattle’s convincing 3-1 win over the Supports’ Shield winner, as the decisive factor. But Seattle’s defensive tactics, which restricted the league’s best attack to just four shots on target, completely stifled LAFC.
When it comes to dictating tempo, most people envision a team that dominates possession. But the Sounders set the rhythm of the Western Conference Final with their defensive scheme, toggling between pressing high bunkering deep and controlling space in a mid-block.
Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer also had the wingers pinch inside next to Roldan and Svensson, keeping the team’s shape compact and shrinking space between the lines. This forced the vast majority of LAFC’s possession to the flanks, where Smith and Leerdam would engage the attacker long enough for one to two Sounders to slide across and provide cover.
Schmetzer often preaches the importance of active defending, which is when his team adopts a shape on the ball that puts them in position to quickly close down opponents and negate transition moments when they lose possession. That was in full display on Tuesday night.
Leerdam and Smith put in monstrous performances against wingers that thrive in 1-v-1 situations, as they routinely won their individual matchups with Rodriguez and Rossi. The pair combined for six tackles, four interceptions, 12 clearances and 13 recoveries.
Smith and Leerdam's combined tackles (green) interceptions (blue), clearances (purple) and recoveries (orange) against LAFC | MLSsoccer.com
LAFC counter-pressed as soon as they lost possession, hunting the ball in packs and attempting to negate transition opportunities. Seattle’s outside backs remain composed and often broken that line of pressure with passes to midfielders in pockets of space.
With LAFC playing from behind from the 26th minute on, they often left their wingers high up the filed. This left massive channels for Leerdam and Smith to bomb forward on the counter. Smith, in particular, caused headaches for the hosts as he attacked space vacated by LAFC wingers, which led to a couple of quality chances in the second half.
Smith created several chances for Seattle by picking his moments to attack the space behind Rossi
Svensson and Roldan put on a masterclass in active defending against LAFC, taking up positions in possession that allowed them to both be an outlet and quickly shut down transition moments.
When defending a bit deeper, the pair constricted space in the middle. LAFC is lethal when they can find their wingers or midfielders between the lines, as it allows them to turn and run at scrambling back lines. The Sounders refused to let them turn, forcing the hosts to recycle possession backwards.
Svensson and Roldan's combined tackles (green) interceptions (blue), clearances (purple) and recoveries (orange) | MLSsoccer.com
There were some other nuances to their shared approach, but there’s no denying their effectiveness. Svensson and Roldan combined for eight tackles won, three interceptions, three clearances and 12 recoveries.