The 2016 MLS season is officially over now that the Seattle Sounders hoisted the MLS Cup at BMO Field on Saturday. While the quality of play left many spectators underwhelmed, the drama surely lived up to that of a final.
As clubs now turn their attention to 2017, there are always takeaways from the showdown of the two best teams in MLS. Whether it be how they built their roster, what their emphasis was on, or how they played from a tactical point of view, there are certainly worse things to draw conclusions from than a game that 18 other teams set out at the start of the 2016 season to be a part of.
Defense Really Does Win Championships
The MLS Cup was expected to have plenty of goals and creativity with the likes of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Nicolas Lodeiro, and Jordan Morris involved. Unfortunately for viewers outside of Seattle’s fan base, it was a whole lot less about moments of individual brilliance and a whole lot more about tackles, clearances, interceptions, and marking.
With that said, the Sounders managed to earn themselves the title without registering a single shot on target. Toronto launched 19 shots in Stefan Frei’s direction, seven of which were on goal. Not only did Seattle fail to force Clint Irwin into a save, but the visitors attempted just three shots in over 120 minutes of action.
Seattle’s back line of Chad Marshall, Roman Torres, Tyrone Mears, and Joevin Jones was fantastic all night long. Marshall and Torres were physical with Altidore, making everything difficult for him while frustrating him throughout. Mears in particular slowed down Toronto’s attack by refusing to allow Giovinco to get into dangerous areas on his side of the field.
Jason Kreis is out scouting players, and undoubtedly looking for some defensive pieces to add to his 2017 roster. Orlando conceded 60 goals this season, and while it would be unfair to place the majority of that blame on Kreis, he will certainly be looking to improve the squad in that area of the field.
Deep-Lying Midfielders Allow Tactical Flexibility
Much was made about the two No. 6 players featured in this match. Michael Bradley and Osvaldo Alonso are as high caliber as they come in MLS, and the two did not disappoint. While they held down the same position, they played very different roles effectively.
Bradley may have had his best performance of the season, though it ended in disappointing fashion with a missed penalty attempt. The U.S. Men’s National Team skipper was tasked with not only dictating the tempo for the Reds but had a huge hand in ensuring Lodeiro was unable to make his mark on the game.
Bradley played 18 passes into the final third through the run of play alone, while consistently getting the team from the defensive third to the attacking third and maintaining possession. On the defensive side, he racked up 30 defensive stops and played a major part in marking Lodeiro, consistently passing him off and picking him up from Nick Hagglund.
Alonso, on the other hand, struggled in the first half. It really was the tale of two halves for the Sounders captain, who made his presence known in the second half and extra time. Alonso cut out nine Toronto attacks and managed six clearances after halftime. While he most certainly imposed himself physically and provided a shield for Seattle’s back four, it was his passing range that allowed the Sounders to release pressure on several occasions.
Bradley had the flashier of the two performances, but its no secret that the work of the two midfielders was a major part of both coaches’ game plans. It was Bradley and Alonso that freed up other players higher up the field to either join the attack or act as the pressure valve in Seattle’s case.
Orlando has a surplus of serviceable defensive midfielders in Antonio Nocerino, Cristian Higuita, and Servando Cerrasco. However, with all due respect, none of those guys are game-changers with the ability to impact the outcome of a result the way that Bradley and Alonso have done again and again.
MLS Experience Makes a Difference
At the end of the day, the rosters of Toronto and Seattle are prime examples of MLS experience paying dividends in the postseason. While the main playmakers of the two teams, Giovinco and Lodeiro, are rather new to the league, many of the players around them understand how the league works and operates, and what it takes to contend for a championship.
On Seattle’s roster alone there are four players that have been in the league since at least 2009 that played major roles in their success. Altogether, Brad Evans, Chad Marshall, Osvaldo Alonso, and Stefan Frei have over 30 years of experience in MLS.
Toronto also has plenty of veterans that have proven to be successful in the league over time. While the core of Giovinco, Bradley, and Altidore remained the same from a year ago, it was acquisitions such as Drew Moor, Steven Beitashour, and Will Johnson that pushed the team over the top. Moor, Beitashour, and Johnson also have 30 years of MLS experience between them.
Brek Shea and Joe Bendik have the most experience on Orlando City’s roster in terms of MLS, with seven years and five years, respectively. Both of them will likely fill crucial roles for Jason Kreis in 2017, but without other experienced role players around them, it appears as though there is a ceiling for the team.
Moving forward, these are three things that every club in the league can take away from this year’s MLS Cup match-up. There are certainly different storylines that will be manipulated to different clubs’ situations and there are plenty of others that the naked eye may not see. With that said, there are plenty of similarities and differences between Seattle and Toronto that many executives and coaches will likely try to replicate in 2017.
Which takeaway should Orlando City pay the most attention to this off-season?