Inside Opta: Morris poses problems, Ricketts an MLS Cup wild card and more

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Goal takes an analytical look at the MLS Cup final as Toronto FC prepares to host the Seattle Sounders in the league's 2016 finale.

Ten months have passed since the Seattle Sounders introduced Jordan Morris as the most lucrative homegrown player in MLS history. On that day, then-Sounders coach Sigi Schmid mused about the rookie's best position on the professional level.

"I think Jordan is a forward at the end of the day," Schmid said. "He still has the youthful exuberance that he can probably run on a flank for a little bit. How we're going to play exactly next year, we'll determine a little bit more during preseason."

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Schmid may be gone, but the debate lingers. After enduring some growing pains as a winger before finding his stride up top, Morris is back where he started: on the flank. As the Sounders prepare to face Toronto FC in the MLS Cup final Saturday at BMO Field, the versatile rookie poses some major matchup problems for Greg Vanney and Co.

The average positions for the Seattle Sounders (left) and Toronto FC in their respective conference final second legs. Note the position of Seattle Sounders rookie Jordan Morris (No. 13).

Toronto, of course, won the Eastern Conference title on the strength of a late-season shift to the 3-5-2. A 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union in the knockout round was followed by a 7-0 demolition of New York City FC in the conference semifinals, exposing few cracks in Vanney's new formation.

The conference final against the Montreal Impact, however, was another matter. Decided in extra time after two of the most memorable playoff games in MLS history, TFC's 7-5 aggregate triumph showed just how risky that formation can be.

Although the 3-5-2 sets up Michael Bradley, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore to succeed, the three-man back line can be exposed on the flanks. That much became quite evident as Impact wingers Dominic Oduro and Ignacio Piatti combined for three goals and two assists over two legs against Toronto.

It's the space between the wing backs and the center backs that is vulnerable, particularly on the left side as Justin Morrow pushes high and Nick Hagglund is pulled out wide. While Morris scored both of his goals in the conference final win over the Colorado Rapids while deployed on the left flank, he started the second leg on the Sounders' right side.

If Morris starts there again Saturday, he'll surely be a thorn in Hagglund's side. But even from the opposite flank, expect the MLS Rookie of the Year to attack that space with the same driving runs that have made him such a force this postseason.


RICKETTS AN MLS CUP WILD CARD

Tosaint Ricketts has wholeheartedly embraced his super-sub role for Toronto this postseason, scoring two goals while seeing his minutes increase with each appearance. While the 29-year-old's energy makes for a spark off the bench, he also gives coach Greg Vanney a chance to introduce a tactical wrinkle.

Toronto FC's average position in the conference final second leg after Tosaint Ricketts came on.

In each leg against Montreal, Ricketts replaced a central midfielder — essentially morphing the 3-5-2 into an aggressive 3-4-3 alignment. As Ricketts stretched the opposing back line, Altidore and Giovinco took turns dropping into midfield to provide an outlet.

It made for an open game, but it's tough to argue with the results: Toronto outscored Montreal 5-0 with Ricketts on the field. Should TFC face a deficit Saturday, we know Vanney has a reliable trick up his sleeve.


PASSER OF THE WEEK: ARMANDO COOPER

When Armando Cooper takes the field Saturday, he'll be making his sixth appearance of the playoffs — matching his total from the regular season. Signed on loan from Arabe Unido in August, the Panama international has quietly become one of the most influential acquisitions of the 2016 season.

Providing crucial support for Michael Bradley in central midfield, Cooper showed impeccable range while connecting on 35 of 41 passes in the second leg against Montreal. To boot, he won a game-high 13 duels.

Those numbers won't gain Cooper many headlines, but it's hard to imagine Toronto in the MLS Cup final without him.


QUICK KICKS

— It's safe to say set pieces will be critical Saturday. Nick Hagglund has emerged as a real weapon for Toronto, as he scored one goal and set up another in the second leg against Montreal. (He also won nine aerial duels in the first leg, marking the second-best total by any MLS player in 2016.) On the Seattle side, Chad Marshall's four goals in the regular season tied for the league lead among center backs.

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— Arguably the top two defensive midfielders in MLS will share the field as Michael Bradley faces Osvaldo Alonso. While Alonso led MLS in passes completed and passing accuracy (91 percent), Bradley topped all D-mids with 35 scoring chances created despite missing 10 matches through injury.

— After notching a second-leg hat trick against NYCFC, Sebastian Giovinco was held off the board in both matches against Montreal. But he certainly made his influence known in the second leg, marking a personal season high with six scoring chances created to fuel TFC's comeback.

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