In a one-game playoff like the MLS Cup Final, teams will be looking for any tiny advantage they can get to put them over the edge. Both Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders must squeeze out as much as they can from every area of the pitch where they're better than the opposition.
So, in order to truly understand what TFC will be up against on Saturday, we'll break down both Toronto's and Seattle's lineups to see where either team has any advantage.
First, the home lineup. At this point, there's no way that Greg Vanney will abandon the 3-5-2, and why would he? There is really only one spot that may be a point of contention, as although Will Johnson seemed to earn his starting spot last week against Montreal, there's every possibility that Jonathan Osorio is put back in the lineup for extra attacking power.
Bench: Bono, Williams, Bloom, Ricketts, Osorio, Cheyrou, Endoh
As for Seattle, we had some help from our friends over at Sounder at Heart to come up with a projected lineup. It looks like they'll be running a 4-2-3-1, with most of the starting XI set in stone just like TFC's. The three attacking midfielders aren't quite a certainty, as any of Erik Friberg, Alvaro Fernandez, Andreas Ivanschitz, or Brad Evans could join Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro in that trio. We'll tentatively insert Friberg, who played the first leg of the Western Conference Final, just because it puts Lodeiro farther toward the wing, which may be a better strategy for the Sounders against TFC.
Bench: Miller, Scott, Fisher, Ivanschitz, Evans, Fernandez, Gomez
Former TFC draft pick Stefan Frei returns to BMO Field, hoping to win an MLS Cup at the stadium where he began his MLS career. This matchup is pretty close. Frei has a slight edge in clean sheets (8 to Irwin's 6) and save percentage (66.4–65.8). Irwin has a marginally better goals-against average, with 1.21 to Frei's 1.24. In the playoffs, though, Irwin's play has been hit-and-miss. A couple of the goals allowed in the first half in Montreal were probably stoppable, but he was absolutely dominant in extra time at home last Wednesday. Neither keeper is a sure thing, and Irwin has more experience, but Frei's form may be just a little bit more reliable at the moment.
Edge: Slightly Seattle
For Toronto, Drew Moor has been an absolute beast of a centre-back this season. He's been reliable in all situations, with an 85.2% pass completion rate and a calm demeanor that has gotten the Reds out of some sticky situations in their own third many times in the playoffs. On Seattle's side, though, Chad Marshall is arguably the best aerial dueler in MLS. He will be difficult for TFC to deal with on set pieces like corners, which have been one of the team's main sources of scoring recently. Beside him, Roman Torres has made a name for himself as a dominant force in the 18-yard box. He makes up for Marshall's deficiencies in the ground game. As a pairing, they may be a good match for Jozy Altidore's strength and Sebastian Giovinco's close-range skill.
This game may well be won in the centre of the pitch. Both sides have excellent defensive options, with Michael Bradley, Will Johnson, and Steven Beitashour for the Reds up against a very strong Osvaldo Alonso for the Sounders. Alonso can do it all, from tackling to playmaking, and may require the attention of multiple Toronto midfielders to be overwhelmed. Bradley should be capable of beating him, though, as is Armando Cooper, who is good at creating chances from midfield. TFC's wingback system, with Beitashour and Justin Morrow both capable of moving up into the attack, has given them more flexibility and width in midfield. The inclusion of Will Johnson, a two-time MLS Cup winner, in Toronto's lineup would take some of the load off of Bradley and Beitashour in controlling Seattle's two greatest offensive weapons, Nicolas Lodeiro and Jordan Morris. Both Sounders stars will be major factors in this game, and focusing on shutting them down will be the key to Toronto's success.
Lodeiro and Morris should probably, in fairness, be considered in this category more than midfield. Lodeiro, since coming to Seattle as a designated player in the summer, has ripped up MLS and had a hand in 12 goals (4G, 8A) in 13 appearances in the regular season. He's also put in half of Seattle's eight playoff goals this year. Morris, arguably the future of the USMNT, scored 12 goals himself over the regular season. Nelson Valdez, however, hasn't been as great a success story at striker. He failed to score a single goal in the regular season, disappointing to say the least for a designated player. Unfortunately for Seattle, TFC have arguably the best centre-forward tandem in MLS, with Sebastian Giovinco (who, let's be honest, needs no discussion), and Jozy Altidore, who's been on an absolute tear recently, scoring a crucial goal in each of Toronto's 2016 playoff games.
With all due respect to Seattle, this one isn't particularly close. Their bench mainly consists of alternative options for midfield, in this case likely Brad Evans and Andreas Ivanschitz. Those players have done a commendable job in the playoffs shutting down close games late and defending Seattle's lead, but the Sounders don't have a true supersub like Toronto. Tosaint Ricketts has come on in every playoff game so far for the Reds, and every time (particularly when they were in most desperate need of it) he's changed the pace of the game. He's scored two huge goals, one at home to New York City and another in extra time against Montreal, and has given the Reds new life in attack in every game. His speed off the bench is Toronto's secret weapon, and if the game is close in the late stages this Saturday, his entrance could have a huge impact. As well as Ricketts, Greg Vanney will have Jonathan Osorio as an additional attacking option he can sub in for Johnson if the Reds are behind.
Edge: Heavily Toronto