Throughout the postseason, the Seattle Sounders have been essentially perfect on the defensive side of the ball. The Sounders defense has allowed zero goals through four playoff games en route to a second-straight MLS Cup appearance.
Toronto FC knows the challenge well. They faced it last year and fell short in a scoreless MLS Cup. TFC’s inability to open up the Sounders defense proved their downfall in 2016 but, entering the 2017 MLS Cup, the team is feeling a bit more confident against a backline that is certainly in incredible form.
On Saturday, Toronto FC will look for a bit of MLS Cup revenge against the Seattle Sounders, who ride an unblemished defense into BMO Field. Featuring star centerback duo Chad Marshall and Roman Torres, 2016 MLS Cup hero Stefan Frei in goal and fullbacks Joevin Jones, Kelvin Leerdam and Nouhou Tolo, the Sounders defense has been record-breaking so far in the 2017 postseason. Dating back to the regular season, the Sounders haven’t allowed a goal since Oct. 1, a span dating back six matches.
“The whole back four has played really well,” said Sounders boss Brian Schmetzer. “Certainly whichever way we go with the lineups choices that we have both Joevin and Nouhou are good at what they do… It’ll be an interesting matchup to see who gets the best out of the flank areas.”
“When I watch games, I feel like in some aspect to win games you have to break shape a little bit and make things difficult for the opposition,” added his TFC counterpart, Greg Vanney. “You have to make things difficult for that group and not make things so straight-forward. As I watched some of the Western Conference games for them, a lot of things were straight-forward against them and they managed those things very well.”
As Vanney said, the Sounders have done a spectacular job of managing chaos and using it to their own advantage. Against the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Sounders were able to bide their time with a scrappy draw in Vancouver before attacking away back at home. Against the Houston Dynamo, the Sounders simply kept their cool by cruising past a Dynamo team that all but self-destructed with two red cards and a 2-0 first leg defeat in Texas.
For their part, though, Toronto FC has found a way to survive as well, even if the playoff road has been a bit more chaotic than expected. In a frantic series with the New York Red Bulls, TFC overcame the extracurriculars to seal advancement. The Crew tested the Supporters’ Shield champions, but TFC survived on a Jozy Altidore goal even after a lackluster first leg.
Against two strong defenses, TFC scrapped just enough to survive, and they believe those experiences will help in the finale.
“The Red Bulls really came out, pressed us up high and created chaos. Columbus didn’t do the same thing,” said midfielder Marky Delgado. “They sat back a little more and tried to get us on the counter attack. We saw two different types of defending: high-press and counter-attacking. We’ve seen it all so far.
“We’re ready going into Seattle and, if they want to sit back, they’ll want to counter-attack. If they press, we’ve had that experience with the Red Bulls and it’s just going to be a battle. If it comes out that way, we’ll see what happens.”
The key for TFC will be to attack in numbers. Torres and Marshall have been an indomitable partnership since the former joined MLS, but they aren’t the fleetest of foot. TFC will need to create width, pull defenders away from their comfort zones and exploit the mess that remains.
They have the pieces to do so. Altidore, who insists he is unconcerned about his current ankle injury, has battled with Torres many times in the past. Sebastian Giovinco, hobbled by cramps in the final last season, is a danger from open play and set pieces. Justin Morrow had a Best XI-caliber season out wide while Victor Vazquez adds an entirely new dimension in the midfield for a TFC team that struggled in the attack last December.
Vazquez may just be the key. TFC’s lack of No. 10 killed them in the finale just as much as Frei’s big saves. With Vazquez able to split the defense, TFC have another weapon that only makes Giovinco and Altidore all the more dangerous.
“For us, it’s trying to make things difficult,” Vanney said, “and trying to get guys into areas that we think we can take advantage of and try to get our guys on the ball as much as we can and execute when we get chances to execute. It’s a good defensive team, but we think we can find some spots and create some problems for them.”
“I think we’re all very honest with ourselves,” added captain Michael Bradley, “and also understand that as we continue to grow and improve and try to push the envelope, there’s always the need to make sure we tweak things and continue to evolve and grow in the right ways.”
TFC isn’t foolish enough to think Saturday will be some beautiful, free-flowing, open and attacking game, though. Like most cup finals, Vanney expects it to be a dragged-out affair where both teams wait and wait for the right moment to strike.
Last year, TFC wasn’t ready or able to strike when those moments came. This season, even with an improved defense in their way, the Supporters’ Shield winners feel like they have the pieces in place to get an advantage, maintain it and, ultimately, ride it to an MLS Cup title.
“Initially, I think the game will be relatively tight. I don’t think either team wants to give away too much,” Vanney said. “Goals always determine and change games, and last year neither team could get the edge on the other to force them to come out and expose themselves and chase the game real quick. Goals will dictate how open this game gets. I think it will be cagey at first and we’ll see where it goes from there.
“We just need to be smart about how we go about business,” Vanney added, “and hurt them in the moments where we have the opportunity to hurt them.”