Stefan Frei’s world-class save and Roman Torres’ game-winning penalty kick were the signature moments of the Seattle Sounders’ MLS Cup victory last season over Toronto FC.
What gets overlooked in that victory was that Seattle won the championship without scoring a goal in 120 minutes of action. A step further – the Sounders were not credited with a shot on goal against Toronto to become the first club to win MLS Cup in this fashion.
It is a subject one year later that still gets Seattle coach Brian Schmetzer a little irritated.
“That no shots-on-goal stat is kind of bothering me a little bit, because if you watch the replay of the game last year, there were two or three moments where we had the ball in their end,” Schmetzer said. “Tyrone (Mears) missed an open cross, and JJ (Joevin Jones) got down the left side.
“We created some attacking moments.”
If the Sounders are to repeat as MLS champions, they’ll need to figure out how to crack Toronto’s defense today at BMO Field (1 p.m, ESPN). Chances are good that the Sounders will see the same defensive formation Toronto in last year’s MLS Cup – a 3-5-2.
“Defending starts with the first guys up front, and their reactions in transition, their willingness to recover and get behind the ball,” Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney said. “Once you get numbers behind the ball, it is a lot easier for everybody to do their job, and things are a lot clearer.
“The basis of good teams is good defending.”
Toronto has shown to be both this year. They set a record by accumulating 69 points this year, winning the league’s Supporters Shield. The Reds not only scored the second-most goals in MLS history this season (74), they were the Eastern Conference’s leaders in fewest goals allowed with 37.
At times during the 2016 regular season, Vanney utilized the 3-5-2 in spots during matches, but mainly played a 4-4-2 diamond formation.
It wasn’t until late in the season that Vanney made the permanent switch to three backs and five midfielders, all designed to control the middle of the field – for defending or attacking.
What has made Toronto’s defense better than last season was the acquisition of left back Chris Mavinga, the Congolese star who has quickly developed as one of the best defenders in the MLS.
Drew Moor plays in the middle, and either Eriq Zavaleta (likely starter Saturday) or Nick Hagglund (started 2016 MLS Cup) will start at right back.
If the Reds need extra help on defense in front of goalkeeper Alex Bono, they will drop Justin Morrow of Steven Beitashour off the wing, or Michael Bradley in the midfield.
“There’s a little more space in behind (the back three), but with that being said, it’s more clogged in the middle,” Sounders forward Will Bruin said. “They put Bradley back there, who covers a lot of ground.
“Playing in between two center backs on each side, we can’t get forced into forcing balls in there.”
Where this formation is normally vulnerable is along the sideline, which should bode well for the likes of Nico Lodeiro, Victor Rodriguez and Jones, who like to play outside, and have the quickness to create movement among Toronto’s back three defenders.
Lodeiro also has the uncanny ability to whiz sharp, accurate diagonal crosses into the penalty box, which could create good scoring chances for Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris and Bruin.
“There are gaps in other parts of the field, and I think Nico and Victor can exploit those gaps, and make those center backs make some decisions,” Seattle midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “We do have really good players to do that.”
This Sounders group has seen Toronto’s remade 3-5-2 scheme this season as well. In early May, the Reds came to CenturyLink Field and earned a 1-0 victory.
In that match, they managed just two shots on goal, even though it dominated possession of the ball.
They are likely going to have to do better than that if they want to upend the Reds again.
“We should be able to create chances,” Sounders forward Clint Dempsey said. “It is a matter of doing it, and not talking about it.”