TORONTO — The 2016 MLS Cup final is shaping up to be one of the most talent-laden affairs in the history of the championship game. International stars and U.S. national team stars will fill the marquee on a day that is promising to be cold, but also entertaining.
From the quick and skilled wizards Sebastian Giovinco and Nicolas Lodeiro, to the power and tenacity of Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Osvaldo Alonso, Saturday's final is arguably the best collection of talent to ever contest the MLS Cup title.
The winner is likely to come down to which team's stars deliver Saturday, and given how well Seattle and Toronto's marquee players have delivered in the postseason, it is tough to pick which set of stars will be the ones to deliver.
There are plenty of other storylines surrounding the match, including the clash of systems between TFC's 3-5-2 formation and Seattle's 4-4-2, but for Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, the match is still more about top players stepping up than it will be about teams adapting to each other's systems.
"If you’re talking Lodeiro, (Osvaldo Alonso), Jordan (Morris), Giovinco or whoever, wherever those players are, and whatever system they’re in, they still have to make plays," Schmetzer said. "On that given day, if Bradley and Lodeiro are going to be matched up on a similar area of the field, one of them has to win that battle for one of our teams to be successful.
"Whether it’s a 3-5-2, whether it’s a four-man back line, yes, you work on that, you watch film, you try to get your team as prepared as possible," Schmetzer said. "I don’t think it’s too big of a challenge because now we do watch a lot of film. All of the games are televised, we have a whole sports science staff at Seattle where we can digest the statistics and all of that. The preparation will be there.
"At the end of the day, it comes down to the players, how they define their roles within our system or (Greg Vanney's) system.”
Saturday's MLS Cup final is chock full of tasty matchups between many of the league's best. Here are five key battles that will ultimately determine which team lifts the MLS Cup trophy at BMO Field.
JOZY ALTIDORE vs. ROMAN TORRES
The hottest player in MLS is headed straight for one of the best center back pairings in the league, and as unstoppable as Jozy Altidore has looked lately, he won't have a cakewalk against the Sounders tandem of Roman Torres and Chad Marshall.
Torres is the more likely of the two to spend more time trying to contain the powerful TFC striker, and it's a matchup we have seen before on the international level. Torres has the strength to hold his ground against Altidore, but the U.S. international has a speed edge that could prove dangerous if TFC succeeds in isolating him against the Panamanian defender.
"He's the type of forward that makes you have to be more concentrated than usual because you know he's a player that is going to move quickly, that is going to use his strength," Torres said of Altidore. "You have to be fully concentrated and organized."
It can't be overlooked that Torres suffered a torn ACL last year, and still isn't quite back to 100 percent. He has still managed to play at a good level, but stopping an in-form Altidore is another challenge altogether.
NICOLAS LODEIRO vs. MICHAEL BRADLEY
If there's a player who can be considered in the same range of recent unstoppability as Altidore, it's Lodeiro, who has been a terror during the playoffs. His vision, quickness and passing touch have made him the best signing of the season.
TFC happens to have a star player who could make things tough for Lodeiro in Bradley, who has enjoyed an outstanding year in a defensive midfield role for TFC. He has the work rate to keep up with the elusive Lodeiro, though he isn't going to be expected to do it alone. If Bradley can't keep Lodeiro from running wild, the Sounders could find attacking success against a TFC defense that surrendered plenty of chances to Montreal in the Eastern Conference finals.
"I think the central midfield will be a focal point in the match," Vanney said. "Making sure that the team who dominates that will have the majority of the opportunity to win the game.”
Lodeiro doesn't have to be confined to a central role either. He can also be deployed on the wing, where he might find success slipping behind Justin Morrow on the right side of the Sounders midfield. If Lodeiro ventures wide right, Nick Hagglund could have some problems if he's left isolated with the much quicker Lodeiro.
CHAD MARSHALL vs. SEBASTIAN GIOVINCO
How do you stop Giovinco? Montreal had relative success keeping Giovinco off the board in the East final, limiting him to two assists and no goals. It was as much about Giovinco struggling with his own form as it was anything the Impact did. If Giovinco can regain his deadly finishing touch, it could be a long night for the Sounders.
Marshall will likely have the unenviable task of trying to corral the Italian dynamo, and while Marshall isn't exactly fleet of foot, he is excellent at reading the game and positioning himself well to deal with threats. Even with that experience, he is going to need help from Osvaldo Alonso and Cristian Roldan.
One thing to watch is how Giovinco plays in what are expected to be freezing conditions. He has been in Toronto for two seasons, but doesn't appear to be the biggest fan of the cold weather, which could help the Sounders slow him down.
JORDAN MORRIS vs. ERIQ ZAVALETA and STEVEN BEITASHOUR
Morris could be the key to Seattle's chances of pulling off the road victory. His speed and ability to go at defenders could cause serious problems for a TFC defense still adapting to the 3-5-2. Ignacio Piatti had plenty of success against that same side of Toronto's defense in the East final, but you could also argue that dealing with Piatti was great practice ahead of a battle with Morris.
The MLS Rookie of the Year is heavily right-footed, but generally starts out on the left wing, where he tries taking defenders on before cutting inside to deliver shots or passes. He can obviously switch flanks as well, and shift to the right side as the game dictates. This versatility could cause issues for TFC's wingbacks and outside center backs.
TFC will need Steven Beitashour to be attentive defensive in order to ensure Morris doesn't wind up isolated on Zavaleta too often. Beitashour is a smart defender who should be able to sniff out danger and provide support for Zavaleta, who could struggle to deal with Morris' speed.
This is where a third TFC defender will also have a role to play. Drew Moor is the man in the middle of the defense, and has to function as the organizer in the back. He will be tasked with keeping tabs on where Morris is trying to attack, while also dealing with Nelson Valdez.
OSVALDO ALONSO vs. WILL JOHNSON
Alonso and Johnson have been doing battle for years, and it's only fitting that these two warriors meet with a trophy on the line.
The Sounders desperately need Alonso at his best, and there are concerns about the status of a knee injury he suffered in the Western Conference final. Seattle insists the Cuban midfielder will start in the final, but if he's not at his best, he could find things difficult against a midfield featuring Johnson and Michael Bradley.
"I think all our guys realize that he’s the heartbeat of that team and we’ve got to match his fight and his passion for his team," Johnson said of Alonso.
Johnson will have his own part to play in the matchup as well. A two-way player who can pop up in the attack if given the opportunity, Johnson will likely do his part to try and slow down Lodeiro, but he should also pick his spots to attack space in front of Seattle's center backs as they try dealing with Altidore and Giovinco.