The Major League Soccer Cup Final between Seattle and Toronto on Saturday will be a fascinating tactical battle, in addition to being the culmination of the MLS season.
The two teams line up in contrasting fashion. Toronto depends on a trio of center backs in a 3-5-2 formation, while Seattle sets up in what is nominally a 4-2-3-1 but features two attackers roaming out of position.
If both teams stick with the things that got them to the championship game, there will be a couple of battles that stand out.
First, look to see if Seattle forward Jordan Morris can find space between the three Toronto center backs. Morris has made a living this season finding gaps behind fullbacks in four-man defensive lines.
With only three Toronto defenders — Drew Moor in the middle, and Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund on either side — for the Reds, will Morris aim for the channels in between them? Or will he look to exploit the empty space on the wings?
In many ways, Toronto’s formation is designed to relieve wingbacks Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow of some of their defensive responsibilities. The two were a big part of the reason Toronto came back from an early deficit against Montreal in the conference semifinals. Their movement, though, could give Morris and Seattle playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro plenty of space to roam behind them.
Keep an eye on Beitashour and Morrow. If they’re finding plenty of space to go forward, and pinning back Seattle’s fullbacks and defensive midfielders, Toronto will spend the match on the front foot.
Also, keep an eye on Toronto forward Jozy Altidore’s battle against Seattle’s two massive center backs, Chad Marshall and Román Torres. Altidore, one of the biggest, strongest forwards in MLS, has bulled his way to goals in all five playoff games this year.
If he’s able to defeat Seattle’s center backs in the physical matchup, especially from set pieces, it could be a long evening for Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei.
The central midfield, though, may be where the game is won and lost, and that battle comes down to three men. Toronto’s midfield is commanded by Michael Bradley, a key part of both protecting the Reds’ back line and starting Toronto attacks. Seattle’s two-man defensive midfield, made up of Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan, will be tasked with much the same responsibility, as well as blunting the force of Toronto’s all-everything No. 10, Sebastian Giovinco.
If Bradley and company can win the midfield battle, it’ll starve Lodeiro and Morris of service, just as Toronto did to Montreal scorers Ignacio Piatti and Dominic Oduro for much of their conference final.
Championship games are often made out to be questions of “who wants it more.” But this one will be all about space, as both teams give up one space in the hopes of taking advantage of another. The tactical matchup should be fascinating.
• It looks like we’ve seen the last of the North American Soccer League. Nothing is official yet, but according to various reports, all but one or two of the league’s teams will either fold or join the USL for 2017. It looks likely that USL will take over as the American second division and, at least for the time being, the U.S. will be without a third division.
• U.S. Soccer is announcing its Player of the Year awards this weekend, and that began with Bobby Wood receiving the men’s award Friday. If I were among the voters, he would have been my choice. Wood’s rise to become a first-choice striker for the men’s national team deserves recognition. I’d pick Tobin Heath on the women’s side. She doesn’t get mentioned often enough for her role as the most dangerous playmaker on the women’s national team.
• Fans of Liga MX can plan ahead for some Christmas Day soccer. Club America made it all the way to the championship round. With the team also participating in the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan in December, the championship match was pushed back almost into 2017. The two legs of the final will be Dec. 22 and Christmas Day.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at Cologne, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. With only a week and a half to go until the monthlong winter break in the German season, Dortmund is sixth in the Bundesliga table, not at all where it expected to be. Manager Thomas Tuchel needs to get his team on a winning streak if it has hopes of catching Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig.
MLS Cup: Seattle at Toronto, 7 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. The American soccer year culminates with the 21st MLS Cup Final. It’ll be contested in subfreezing temperatures in Toronto, only the second time that the championship will be played on the frozen tundra. Neither team has played for the title before. One trophy cabinet will look a lot better by the end of the night.
Premier League: Tottenham at Manchester United, 8:15 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. As we approach Christmas, the ceremonial halfway post for the Premier League season, Jose Mourinho has his hugely expensive Manchester United team closer to last place than to first place. The Red Devils need to win games, soon, or Mourinho could be on the hot seat.
Ligue 1: Nice at Paris Saint-Germain, 1:45 p.m. Sunday, beIN. The story of the first half of the French season is that, for once, PSG isn’t running away with the title. Both Monaco and Nice are ahead of the yearly French champions through nearly half of the schedule. Without talismanic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, PSG looks decidedly mortal. It’s a big opportunity for Nice.