Friday, December 9, 2016

The Late Tackle, 12 09 2016: All MLS Cup Preview, and Nothing But

Sweet Jesus. That is Chatty Cathy and she is terrifying!
So, the 2016 Major League Soccer season reaches its long-delayed climax (srsly, entire month of November was pure whiskey-dick) tomorrow afternoon when the Seattle Sounders visit Toronto FC to vie for MLS Cup. My plans for the day include pulling on some loose fitting clothing and burying myself in blankets on a couch and challenging my body to stay awake despite all the depressants I no doubt will dump into my system in order to cope with what has potential to be, the final insult of 2016. By that I mean Seattle might win the damn game, which would be awful, while also putting an end to my dream of buying a Sounders jersey (nah, I’ll steal one; no money for them) just so I can put [___] over the crest – e.g. where the star goes after your team wins.

It’s not like it’s hard to find write-ups and predictions for tomorrow’s game – the official preview post on has about 20 of the things – because it’s the event of the annual soccer calendar. I’d still like to offer up some final thoughts, for am I a Chatty Cathy Doll, one that talks even without someone pulling the string. Hope I can touch on something novel.

I touched on this thought a couple times over the past week, but when it comes to framing the Cup, I think it’s important to understand it as something other than just the next game for either Seattle or Toronto. “Form” matters, of course, but, in a rough and real way, Seattle is a different team from the Montreal Impact (for Toronto) and Toronto is a different team than the Colorado Rapids (for Seattle). And it goes even deeper than that. Basically, Toronto confronts Seattle with entirely new problems to solve and situations to exploit and vice versa. Here, an honest man acknowledges that there’s not much hard data to work with here, because the teams met only once in 2016 (and under pretty different circumstances). With that, let’s start with what we do know…says, the guy who just gave “form” the side-eye not 100 words before. And, in another nice touch irony/self-flagellation, wherever did I leave that “how they got here” post that I gently mocked yesterday? Ah, there it is. So, fuck me from two days ago, that’s worth reading. Now, let’s take a step further back…

As we all know, Seattle plays the final on the road. Because the Sounders ended the regular season with a 4-9-4 road record, I wanted to confirm that they didn’t transform into road warriors late in the season or anything. The answer there, no, not really: they pulled off an impressive win against LA in late September, and beat Vancouver a couple weeks later (something everyone did, really, except the stupid Portland Timbers), and that’s good and all, but it doesn’t translate to them having a fine-tuned road strategy. On the reverse side of the same token, TFC ain’t exactly a home powerhouse. They ended the regular season at 8-3-6. Moreover, one potentially worthwhile detail got a little lost in the wild goal-fests that defined TFC’s post-season, and it’s one worth drawing out. People talked up TFC as potential Supporters’ Shield winners down the stretch and their candidacy owed a lot to a stack of home games with which they ended their season. Here’s what TFC did in those home games: they went 1-1-3, i.e., crazy points left on the table. And this wasn’t a case of struggling against the league’s best and brightest: the only team they beat was the Chicago Fire (3-2), while they drew Orlando City SC, the Philadelphia Union and the New York Red Bulls – and, worth noting, struggled to score against Philly and Orlando. DC dropped two goals on ‘em, the Red Bulls 3; even Chicago got 2 goals, so…

I dig into all that as a sub-text for weighing the teams each club vanquished in the post-season – especially the stuff about Toronto. The one game that proceeded all those goal-fests was TFC’s late, narrow, first-round win over New York City FC. Game 1 actually tracked Toronto’s late-season form (e.g., not great), but those two goals happened and later forced NYCFC to chase the series, something they got absolutely destroyed doing. I won’t totally undercut the way Toronto salvaged the series against Montreal – and I’ll touch on the defensive side later - but it did require them to execute that game plan almost perfectly (and for Montreal to let them do it; I will never, NEVER understand why Montreal didn’t pull Marco Donadel off Nick Hagglund, because that killed them). Still, and this is to their credit, the series set up to present Toronto with a situation analogous to NYCFC’s – e.g., they had to come out, get burned, and then overcome that. And they did. I guess my overarching thought on all the above is that it’ll be interesting to see how Toronto comes out with a series starting at zeroes.

Seattle, meanwhile, has, 1) never been behind in a series this post-season, and, 2) never faced down a potent offense. They started with (and arguably should have lost to) Sporting Kansas City, a team that attacks intensely, but with “pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey-esque” precision; next came an FC Dallas team missing its unicorn (Mauro Diaz) and then, after that, the Rapids, the sum of whose attack is contained in just one name: Kevin Doyle (and they want a bigger container; trust me). Switching to the offense, the more honest script for their post-season triumphs shows that their best outing – the 3-0 win over Dallas in Seattle – all took place over a 20-minute period. And those goals required pretty significant collapses down Dallas’ right. Otherwise, Seattle stole goals where they could and when needed. That doesn’t comment on the quality of those goals, so much as noting the way they happened. And there’s a good plant for a pivot to the future…where I have just a couple thoughts; hope at least a couple are original.

Jordan Morris
Even if he’s not quite Montreal’s Ignacio Piatti, Jordan Morris carries the weight of Seattle’s surest path toward goal. One of the most interesting thing about this series is how Toronto decides to play its flanks/fullbacks – e.g. does the fullback on whatever side he’s playing stick a little closer to home, maybe even the centerbacks? Does Morris even line up on one side or the other, or does Seattle just use him as a forward? Morris may not be nearly as elegant as Piatti, but he’ll probably be good so long as he hits Dominic Oduro’s level; then, it’ll just be down to Nelson Valdez or Nicolas Lodeiro to make the right run (and for Toronto’s defenders to track him). Moving onto a related thought:

Does Toronto Stick with the 3-5-2?
I only pose this question because I don’t think it makes sense against Seattle, and precisely due to the situation at fullback. I don’t think Toronto gains enough by flooding the midfield, not unless they do something nuts like man-mark Lodeiro, but doing even that assumes that no other Sounder can find Morris and, heck, I think even Stefan Frei can pull it off. Besides, it’s not just a straight numbers game: I’m guessing that Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan could hold up against it, especially if they can force Toronto to play narrow (as they made Colorado do late in their second leg). I believe the 3-5-2 has helped their attack, and Toronto might be the better bet between these two teams to catch up if they fall behind, but I still think, 1) better not to fall behind, and 2) why take an unnecessary risk?

To answer my own question, the 3-5-2 seems likely for Toronto because sometimes you just dance with the guy that brung you and make the little adjustments you have to in order to make it work. It’s just a risk, that’s all. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Toronto start with a different setup, but I’m not expecting it. And I bet they go straight back to the 3-5-2 if they fall behind…and the game will be very entertaining thereafter.

Jozy’s Movement/Finding Chad Marshall
I think the assumption is that Seattle will stick Roman Torres on Jozy. I also think that Jozy should mess with that arrangement as much as possible – and he should do it not just by dropping into midfield to find the ball (which comes up a lot), but by also sort of following around Chad Marshall whenever Jozy’s pushed up high. The basic idea is to get Marshall and Torres sort of tripping over one another. Don’t know if that’ll work or not, but it’s worth a shot. As noted earlier, Altidore is having an awesome post-season, and I’d love to see one more great game from him. And, personally, I’d argue that his chances go up every time he can isolate himself against Marshall.

I Can’t Wait to See What Toronto Does With Sebastian Giovinco
That’s all. I hope it’s good.

The Mystery of Michael Bradley
While I didn’t see every kick on the Toronto v. Montreal series, I did see the parts where Montreal just fucking ran over Toronto’s midfield, and Bradley caused, like, a lot of those problems, whether by give-aways, or getting beat like a goddamn gong defensively. He’s going to be important, even more so if Toronto goes away from the 3-5-2, because he’ll be exposed more defensively. Hmmm…the more I think about this, the more I wonder if Toronto doesn’t have the bigger vulnerabilities in midfield. Between Roldan and Alonso, Seattle has a clear system that they know how to execute; I don’t feel quite the same about Toronto’s situation. I dunno, maybe they do expend a warm body to keep Lodeiro out of the game…

Beyond believing he’ll do everything he can to get free to operate, I don’t know what to expect. One thing that it just occurred to me to watch is how closely he sticks to Morris. By that I mean there could be some value in alternate between keeping Lodeiro near to combine with Morris, but also to pull him away to see if Toronto players chasing Lodeiro doesn’t give Morris a better shot at getting isolated with a hapless fullback (aka, Steven Beitashour could be in for a long night).

Well, that’s all I got. Unlike some people I’ve read, I think this one could set up like a traditional final – e.g. cagey. Both teams are good enough to defend for a while, especially if they don’t take too many chances. Once a goal gets scored, especially one by Seattle, I expect all hell breaks loose. I’m not sure I’d make the same point with Toronto. I can see them killing the game, and precisely by dropping the fullbacks to choke off those lanes for Morris.

Do I have a prediction? Well, sort of. It’s somewhere in the paragraph above. So long as Toronto scores first, I think they win it. If Seattle scores first, I’m less sure they hold on, even as it’s not hard to see a world where they do. 

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