MLS Eastern Conference Championship Second Leg: What to Watch for

Via Last Word On Soccer, by John Bava

Just one game separates either Toronto FC or the Montreal Impact from their first-ever MLS Cup appearance. That game is the Eastern Conference Championship second leg which takes place Wednesday at BMO Field in Toronto (7 PM, FS1, TSN, RDS). With Montreal enjoying a one-goal advantage after a 3-2 win in the first leg, both teams have to feel good about their chances.

The home-standing Reds know that all they need is a 1-0 or 2-1 victory to make the final. This is on account of the two crucial away goals scored in the second half last Tuesday. A 3-2 win would force 30 minutes of extra time and possibly penalties if both teams are still knotted up. A draw of any kind would see Montreal through.

With Seattle having taken the Western Conference title after a 3-1 aggregate win over Colorado, a TFC win means that the Sounders would travel to Ontario for next Saturday’s championship game. If Montreal prevails, it’s the Impact who will be on the road as CenturyLink Field would play host to MLS Cup.

So what are some key storylines to pay attention to on Wednesday? Can Toronto build upon their successful second half from last week and complete a historic comeback en route to their first Eastern Conference title? Or will the Impact preserve their first leg lead and become the first five-seed to make the final since 2012?

Here’s what to keep an eye on as these two Canadian rivals vie for championship glory.

MLS Eastern Conference Championship Second Leg: What to Watch for

Can Montreal Continue to Exploit the Wings?

TFC head coach Greg Vanney switched to a 3-5-2 formation late in the regular season and has stayed true to it throughout the playoffs. And why not? Heading into the first leg against the Impact, Toronto outscored the opposition 10-1 in their three postseason games. This included a 7-0 aggregate shellacking of New York City FC in the conference semifinals.

But one of the pitfalls of three at the back is the lack of width inherent in the formation. It puts an additional onus on the wing-halves to be sound in their spacing and movement. This becomes even more important in tracking back to defend when possession is lost.

It became apparent early on that Montreal had the game plan and personnel to exploit this fundamental weakness. Impact manager Mauro Biello opted for a 4-3-3 with Dominic Oduro and Ignacio Piatti operating as advanced wingers. In front of a raucous crowd of over 61,000 at Stade Olympique, both players wreaked havoc down the flanks early on.

First came Oduro’s opening tally in the tenth minute.

Irrespective of Patrice Bernier‘s through ball which was immaculate, notice how slow Justin Morrow (no. 2 for TFC) recovered to key in on Oduro’s run. That’s something you simply can’t do when you concede so much width in the defensive third of the field and the Impact took full advantage.

With Toronto flustered after conceding early, they were clearly vulnerable. And a mere two minutes later, Montreal doubled their advantage. Only this time, it was Piatti’s turn to show his quality as provider on the other side of the pitch.

Two things stand out here. First, TFC’s Steven Beitashour is in full-on ball-watching mode which enabled Piatti to receive Oduro’s lofted ball virtually unimpeded. Secondly, he’s cheating way too far inside considering his role in Toronto’s 3-5-2. Bye-bye width and hello Matteo Mancosu goal.

If Toronto want to erase the current deficit and put themselves in line to host MLS Cup, their defensive shape out wide will need to be much improved.

Which Michael Bradley Will Show Up?

There might not be a more polarizing player in North American soccer circles than Michael Bradley. Part of this has to do with his incredibly inconsistent play for the USMNT. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Yanks first two World Cup qualifiers in Hexagonal round. As most are probably well aware, the US dropped both games. It included their first ever loss to Mexico in Columbus followed by an embarrassing 4-0 drubbing at Costa Rica.

Yes, Bradley isn’t the only one to blame. After all, there’s a reason Jurgen Klinsmann‘s no longer the US manager. But that doesn’t absolve the TFC holding midfielder from criticism. Though he has been better for his club (Whoscored gives him the sixth highest player rating in MLS), that form didn’t necessarily translate to the first leg.

Bradley’s role on the pitch requires two primary skill sets: the ability to win the ball from the opponent and to accurately distribute it to his teammates. One often hears of the number six being described as the engine of central midfield. A player who operates in this capacity is expected to be among the team leaders in pass accuracy as well as usage rate from a defensive and distribution standpoint.

Against Montreal in the first leg, Bradley struggled in this regard. His 76 percent pass accuracy was way below his seasonal average of 82.5 percent. And he accounted for just one of TFC’s 34 tackles and interceptions on the game. Nevertheless, his 73rd minute goal may have given the Reds the lifeline they need to pull this series out at home.

And whereas Bradley wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire in winning possession via initial challenges and getting in front of Montreal passes, his ability to win second balls was on full display. Bradley’s nine recoveries comprised 15 percent of TFC’s team total for the game. A look at the following graphic should further reinforce his effectiveness at another crucial skill to have as a deep-lying central midfielder.

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This chart includes recovery, interception and tackle data for the MLS Cup Playoffs and is sorted by recoveries. It should be readily apparent at first glance that Bradley’s knack for having second balls come to his feet is as good as it gets in this league. It goes hand in hand with his overarching duty of shielding the back line.

Will Giovinco Drop Deeper Once More?

Pretty much every team sport, soccer included, isn’t played in a vacuum. More often than not, an initial gameplan isn’t going to hold up for the entirety of a competitive match. Success often requires adjustments and that’s exactly what Vanney did when his team trailed 3-0. It may have saved Toronto’s lives in this series.

MLSSoccer.com‘s Matthew Doyle gave a superb breakdown of the changes Vanney made about an hour into the first leg. Of particular importance was the role Sebastian Giovinco played down the stretch. No longer operating as a second forward alongside Jozy Altidore when Tosaint Ricketts came in, the Italian maestro sat deeper and, in effect, became a number ten.

What this did was force Impact defensive midfielder Marco Donadel to spend more time tracking Giovinco than before. As a result, he was rendered far less effective at breaking up TFC’s forays into their attacking third. No less than 15 minutes after Vanney’s tactical gambit, Montreal’s three-goal cushion had been reduced to one.

Will we see this shape right off the bat in the second leg? Essentially, the initial 3-5-2 became a 3-4-1-2 with Giovinco dispatched as a playmaker behind two forwards. Assuming Vanney doesn’t want to give Ricketts a full 90 minutes, he could opt for what would amount to a 3-5-1-1 with Altidore as the lone striker up top.

Expect Some Fireworks

One thing is certain. We’re set up for an exciting conclusion to what has already been a fascinating series between these fierce Canadian adversaries. BMO Field will be a cauldron as the home support tries to will the Reds to its first-ever MLS Cup final. The visiting Blue-Blanc-Noir are hoping to hold onto their slim advantage in hopes of advancing to the championship for the first time themselves.

Either way, prepare for a Pacific Northwest vs Canada showdown in a week and a half’s time.

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