SHAPES OF MLS
Toronto FC had week one of the new MLS season off, but their first opponents, the Seattle Sounders, kicked the campaign off with a home match against current MLS Cup champions, Sporting Kansas City.
Rain and a slippery surface made passing difficult for both sides, but Ryan Nelsen and his coaching staff were given more than a few glimpses at the way a new Seattle side will want to play.
The Sounders would win the game 1-0 in the fourth and final minute of added time through substitute and former TFC striker Chad Barrett.
With Clint Dempsey only named on the bench, the attention was already on the front two of Seattle before the game began. Once it started, it was interesting to see Kenny Cooper, acquired from FC Dallas last December, as the striker who dropped deep.
Lamar Neagle and former Chicago Fire star Marco Pappa were named by Sigi Schmid to play out wide, but neither of these players hugged the touchlines, instead choosing to play narrower to help their midfield duo. Full backs, Dylan Remick and DeAndre Yedlin in particular, were asked to provide width.
It is worth noting that Yedlin had a very good game and whoever plays on the left for Toronto FC next week will have to work very hard defensively on that flank.
The choice of Cooper to drop in, while surprising, turned out to be effective.
First of all, Cooper recognized his defensive responsibilities. He knows Sporting Kansas City like to play the ball out to the centre backs, so he sat well on their first outlet, Lawrence Olum, as this image shows, while also highlighting the narrowness of the three behind Obafemi Martins.
Cooper's ability to drop into space also confused the centre backs who were unsure how deep to defend once he was able to get into the channels between the lines. Aurelien Collin, on this occasion, found himself guessing whether to stay deep and track the run of Martins or go to win the aerial battle against Cooper. If Cooper starts against Toronto, his positioning will need to be tracked more by the defensive midfielder, likely Michael Bradley, to stop Steven Caldwell from stepping up and leaving space in behind him, which is what happened for Martins here.
Finding space behind Alonso and Evans
There are very few midfield pairings in MLS better than Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans. The two have an excellent understanding, but one thing Toronto FC will look to exploit next week is the space they leave behind them. Seattle's centre backs are not the quickest, so they like to sit deep and usually the midfield is diligent in its positioning, but when the team loses second balls, there is space behind them to exploit quickly on the counter. Toronto FC will need someone with the intelligence of Graham Zusi, who did it for KC, to recognize those times.
Here you see Alonso lose concentration and Evans press, leaving space for Zusi to run into…
Seconds later, Zusi is away to orchestrate a scoring opportunity for the visitors against an unprotected defence….
It helped that Sporting Kansas City's 4-3-3 had someone with Zusi's intelligence but Toronto's likely 4-4-1-1 will have three candidates to get into that space with the wide men and whoever plays off the striker, likely Dwayne De Rosario, who, perhaps, wouldn't be best suited on the left against Yedlin's attacks.
Midfield structure essential to the end
This game looked destined to end 0-0 when Benny Feilhaber was withdrawn in the 92nd minute, but a minute later his replacement, Ike Opara, was easily beaten by Alonso deep in his own half and suddenly Seattle's DP had acres of space to sprint into.
Suddenly, Alonso had their opponents where he wanted them, as he transitioned into their half and connected with Dempsey, who would lay it out wide for the cross that would win the match.
It was a fairytale finish for Seattle who now head into next week's game against Toronto FC with a perfect three points. We have seen that they do allow space in behind their full backs and the central midfield, but you have to be intelligent enough to exploit that when the opportunities arise.
It will be interesting to see what they do with Dempsey. When he came on in the second half, he played just off Martins with Cooper moving out wide before he was later taken off. For that moment, there was room for all three on the pitch, but it will be rare to see that from the start. The key for Toronto will be tracking whichever player joins Martins in attack. The former Newcastle striker was quiet in this game, but this season will feast on slow defensive lines by running in behind when Cooper or Dempsey plays him in.