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MLS Cup analysis

Seattle's stars rise to the big occassion and win 2nd MLS Cup in four years

MLS Cup 2019 wasn't the best final the league has had, but it was a good one. It was a game could have gone to Toronto but Seattle found a way to prevail. It was a game where star players played well and coaches were tested and forced to make adjustments. ASN's Brian Sciaretta breaks it down and gives his thoughts. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
November 10, 2019
5:15 PM
FOR THE SECOND time in four years, the Seattle Sounders are the champions of MLS and this time it came against a familiar foe in Toronto FC. While this was the third time in four years the team have met in the league’s championship game, it was the first time Seattle hosted the event and the home team sent nearly 70,000 of its supporters home celebrating a 3-1 win.

The game had a wonderful atmosphere from the start with pregame festivities in the Seattle streets, a dramatic walk-in among the supporters, and intensity from the opening kickoff.

But it was Toronto that controlled the first half. It had several occasions where it pinned Seattle back within its own area and forced it into emergency defending. Seattle was lucky to keep Toronto off the board. Still, Seattle was able to occasionally flex its muscle and nearly scored the opener against the run of play just before halftime when Raul Ruidiaz took a look ball up the middle and forced Toronto’s Quentin Westberg into making a great save.

But Seattle head coach Brian Schmetzer made adjustments at halftime to help alleviate Toronto’s pressure. Seattle struck first in the 57th minute when Ruidiaz found Kelvin Leerdam on the right side. Leerdam created space and his shot deflected past Westberg to send CenturyLink Field into an absolute frenzy.

Victor Rodriguez came into the game in the 61st minute and gave Seattle even more quality up top. With the combination of Nicholas Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz, and Jordan Morris, Rodriguez simply was too much for Toronto to handle.

In the 76th minute, the game was put out of reach when Lodeiro combined with Rodriguez who made a nice move across the top of the box before firing an unstoppable low shot past Westberg for a 2-0 lead.

The exclamation point came in the 90th minute when Gustav Svensson sent a long ball up the middle which Ruidiaz outmaneuvered Chris Mavinga to receive. He then made no mistake with the classy finish for a 3-0 lead.

A minute later, Toronto scored a consolation goal from Jozy Altidore, who was playing hurt and came into the game to try to rally Toronto. Alitdore headed home a short cross from Alejandro Pozuelo but it was far too little, too late.

Minutes later, the final whistle sounded and set off epic celebrations throughout Seattle.

Here are some thoughts on the game

Seattle had superior quality

First of all, hats off to Toronto. It is remarkable that the team advanced this far – it beat two teams with considerably more firepower in New York City and Atlanta on the road to book a ticket to MLS Cup. Head coach Gregg Vanney had this team punching above its weight.

In the first half, Toronto was the better team with more possession and more opportunities. But its inability to take advantage during this stretch was too costly. It was only a matter of time before Seattle’s star offensive players would find just enough room to make big plays – and they did.

Without Altidore, Toronto was always limited. Essentially it was a team that was always going to go as far as Alejandro Pozuelo was able to take it with creating and finishing chances, and whether or not Michael Bradley was going to control the midfield.

But Seattle simply had more players who could make difference making plays. Seattle was able to create and score chances against the run of play, and it’s expensive players always were enough to keep it in the game. Nicholas Lodeiro is perhaps the best No. 10 in the league, Raul Ruidiaz was the best offensive player in the playoffs, Jordan Morris has been in outstanding form for both club and country in recent months. Victor Rodriguez, meanwhile, was just too much for Toronto.

Also, in an era where a lot of money is spent on attacking players, Seattle's defense held strong. It would bend and not break, despite being under pressure. Keeping Toronto scoreless at the half was critical in allowing key adjustments to be made and it was probably one of Seattle's keys to victory. 

Pozuelo & Bradley played well in loss

Toronto was not able to match Seattle’s overall quality and was not nearly as clinical as it needed to be with its chances, but it still got very good performances from its two best players in Michael Bradley and Alejandro Pozuelo.

For Bradley, he was all over the field in the win and helped on both sides of the ball. He helped shield their central defenders and was effective getting the ball into multiple attacking positions. His heat map shows that he was the team’s engine and was a reason why Toronto won the possession edge.

For Pozuelo, he was also strong in his first MLS final and did his best to match the impact Sebastian Giovinco had on the team. But there were times, particularly in the first half, where it took two or three defenders just to contain Pozuelo.

Toronto got what it could from its two healthy designated players. If Altidore was at 100%, maybe it would have been a different result.

This offseason, it will be interesting to see how Toronto adjust to an ever-changing league. It should attempt to bring back Bradley to a TAM deal and then sign another quality designated player to go along with Pozuelo and Altidore as the other designated players. If Altidore is healthy, that will be as strong of a core as there is in the league. But even if Altidore is injured (as he too frequently is), at least there will be a “Plan B.”

But another thing is clear – Toronto is extremely well coached by Gregg Vanney who until halftime of the final looked like his team was going to plow through the toughest path to a title the league has ever seen. This season was challenging with the injuries to Altidore and the transition away from Sebastian Giovinco, but Vanney handled it well and has the team on the right track.

Ruidiaz has a postseason for the ages

The defining story for Seattle this postseason was that all of its top players were in form. But Raul Ruidiaz had maybe the greatest postseason run in league history with four goals and three assists in the four playoff games for Seattle. Seattle spent a fortune to get him and he delivered them a title at home.

Of course, there have been great playoff performers in a league that now has a full 24 seasons under its belt. But Ruidiaz this year was as good as any. In the end, he capped it with a goal and an assist in the final.

Schmetzer cements his legacy

So much was made of Brian Schmetzer this week – and for good reason too. It continues to be a great story that a Seattle native who played for the club as early as 1980, who coached the club well before it began in MLS, was an assistant under Sigi Schmid and took over when Schmid was fired, is now one of the league’s best coaches of this era. And on Sunday he sealed his second title in front of 70,000 fans in his home city.

Schmetzer’s legacy has been uniquely tied to the club – in many eras, in various leagues, in many capacities. He’s almost the face of soccer in Seattle and he is humble about it but does a great job. He has helped this this team grow, with peaks and valleys in between, into the pinnacle of American soccer.

In MLS, he has coached some of the greatest players in league history – from Clint Dempsey, to Obafemi Martins, to Nicholas Lodeiro, to Raul Ruidiaz. As either an assistant coach or head coach, he has coached two of the most successful homegrown signings the league has ever had in DeAndre Yedlin and Jordan Morris.

After watching Seattle today, it will be interesting to see what is next for this team.

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