Toronto vs. Seattle presents some intriguing matchups in MLS Cup
On Dec. 10, the city of Toronto will host the MLS Cup final for the second time, but the circumstances couldn't be more different from the previous encounter back in 2010. That edition featured two nondescript teams in the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas and was largely bereft of atmosphere.
This time around, two high-profile sides will be featured in Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders. And if Wednesday's edge-of-your-seat victory by TFC over the Montreal Impact in the Eastern Conference final is any indication, the energy from the BMO Field crowd should be off the charts.
As for the game itself, there are intriguing matchups all over the field, and even on the bench. Here's a quick breakdown of what can be expected in MLS Cup.
Neither Toronto's Greg Vanney nor Seattle's Brian Schmetzer was expected to reach the final as coach, but for different reasons. In some quarters, Vanney wasn't expected to last the season, with reports overseas emerging that he was going to be replaced by a foreign coach. But the TFC brass rightly opted for stability, and that has proved to be the correct call. Vanney not only has successfully melded the team's designated players with its more humble elements, but he's also made some astute tactical changes along the way -- most notably a switch to a 3-5-2 -- that have proved highly effective.
Schmetzer wasn't even a head coach at the start of the season, serving as Sigi Schmid's assistant. But when Schmid was fired with the team in ninth place in the Western Conference, it was Schmetzer -- with the help Nicolas Lodeiro's midseason arrival -- that turned the team around. He's managed to push the right buttons as well, helping young players like Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris grow while also squeezing some goals out of Nelson Valdez, who had been a disappointment before the playoffs. Most of this has been done, mind you, with star forward Clint Dempsey sidelined by a heart ailment.
Seattle's attack vs. Toronto's defense
Since Lodeiro's arrival in late July, the Sounders have been heavily reliant -- some would say too reliant -- on the Uruguayan. But there's no doubting Lodeiro's effectiveness, and his mobility will pose an immense challenge to Toronto midfielder Michael Bradley. The U.S. captain will need to avoid getting pulled out of the center too much, but Vanney's recent insertion of Will Johnson into the lineup should give Bradley some help in this regard.
Another critical piece will be Morris. Toronto's wing-backs, Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow, love to get forward, and with Morris excelling on the wing in recent matches, his runs in wide areas could force them to stay home more than usual. And Morris' speed alone will be a threat to Toronto's back line, which struggled to defend transition opportunities against the Impact. Emerging force Roldan and Andreas Ivanschitz -- who has been battling injuries but started the second leg against the Colorado Rapids -- will also be relied upon to take some of the creative burden off of Lodeiro.
Seattle did look vulnerable to high pressure in the second leg against Colorado, with Tyrone Mears and Roman Torres often forced to just boot the ball long instead of playing out of the back. That is an approach that Toronto might want to make use of, especially with a partisan crowd cheering them on. If Beitashour and Morrow can contribute in this manner, it could have the effect of rendering Lodeiro and Morris ineffective.
Toronto's attack vs. Seattle's defense
Jozy Altidore's performance in both legs against Montreal was immense, as he bullied the Impact's back line. Fortunately for Seattle, it has two center-backs in Torres and Chad Marshall who don't mind engaging in physical battles. The pace and elusiveness of Sebastian Giovinco is another matter. Seattle's defenders will need to avoid getting into too many one-on-one encounters with the Italian. That will require Osvaldo Alonso to be at his tenacious best while also getting help from Roldan and outside backs Mears and Joevin Jones.
Toronto feasted on set pieces in the Eastern Conference final triumph over Montreal, but Seattle's size in the back should see it compete on more level terms in this department.
Finals often see supporting players pop up to take the role of hero. For Toronto, Armando Cooper could very well be that player. The Panamanian is the most creative player operating in TFC's three-man midfield and has shown an ability to stay strong on the ball and wriggle out of difficult situations.
Bradley remains TFC's metronome in attack, despite encountering some peaks and valleys in his performances. There have been moments when he has lost some critical physical battles, including one in the run-up to Montreal's first goal on Wednesday. But his ability to pick out teammates over distance is a key element of Toronto's attack.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.