When the Seattle Sounders and Colorado Rapids take to the pitch at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park on Sunday for the second leg of the MLS Western Conference final, all eyes will be on the midfield alignment of both sides.
Both sides play a similar style of the 4-2-3-1 formation, but the Rapids will be forced to tweak their system for the second leg after the yellow-card suspension of Sam Cronin, who picked up his second caution of the play-offs in Tuesday’s first leg that was won 2-1 by the Sounders.
Coming up with a replacement is an easy job for Colorado boss Pablo Mastroeni. The front-runner for MLS Coach of the Year will follow the next-man-up mentality his side has had all year, as he’ll bring in Micheal Azira for Cronin.
“Sam’s been a stalwart for us in the middle all year," Mastroeni said in a league conference call. "He’s played pretty much every game. He’s an important piece to the group. There’s nothing we can do about the situation. Now it’s about the next man up."
Cronin has been one of the best players in MLS in 2016.
"I think Azira came into the game last week and did a very good job of getting on the ball," the Colorado boss continued. "Azira will be a natural replacement for Sam. We’ve had a lot of guys missing and we’ve operated like a team and the next man that steps into whoever’s role comes in and does a fantastic job."
The intricacies of Sunday’s tactical game plan are still being sorted out by Mastroeni, but it looks like Jermaine Jones will revive his role in the middle of the park along with either Dillon Powers or Kevin Doyle in the role behind forward Dominique Badji.
"We definitely have some options out there," Mastroeni said. "We’ve played with a different look at those three central positions all year. We’re going to have to make one change and how we utilize the other guys will be left to the next couple days."
If the midfield trio is Jones, Azira and Doyle, the Rapids may be left a bit open on the counter due to Jones’ tendency to freelance around the pitch. The United States international can be a vital part to the attack at times, but if he gets left too far forward, Seattle has the ability to strike quick with their speed through the middle of the pitch.
The Rapids have a natural stop gap in Azira in front of the back four, but the technical ability of Nicolas Lodeiro, Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris could put Azira at risk and put more pressure on the back four to make key tackles in and around the penalty area.
Azira’s play will be key with Cronin out.
Jones’ physicality will be a blessing and a curse for the Rapids. The midfielder has a reputation for delivering a crunching tackle or two throughout big games, but he has to pick the right time to do so against the finesse of the Seattle players. One bad challenge could result in a free-kick opportunity someone like Lodeiro could bury past Zac MacMath.
Despite being down a goal in the series entering the second leg, the Rapids have plenty of confidence in their ability to grind out a result on home soil. The Rapids went 11-0-6 at home during the regular season, and they outlasted the Galaxy at home in the Western Conference semi-final.
All the Rapids need to advance in regulation is a 1-0 victory due to the away goal they earned at Century Link Field. Earning the smallest of possible scorelines has become Colorado’s specialty. The Rapids have had 14 1-0 matches in 2016.
"Our goal going into (the first leg) was to make sure we made the second leg relevant and the away goal did that," Mastroeni said "It’s business as usual coming back home and doing what we’ve been good at all year. We’ve found a way to keep teams off the scoresheet."
As for Seattle, their success also runs through the middle of the park, where Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan and Erik Friberg will be camped out in their version of the 4-2-3-1.
Sounders boss Brian Schmetzer, who took over in July and recently had the interim tag removed from his title, noted the two sides only have a few small differences in how they utilize the formation.
"The only difference is just based on the personalities of the players in each system," Schmetzer said. "If I’m looking at Ozzie (Alonso), Cristian (Roldan) and (Erik) Friberg, that’s different than Jones, Doyle and Cronin."
"I think the tactical demands of each position, the coaches expectations of each position are pretty similar," Schmetzer continued. "We both like to have fullbacks go forward. They have a No. 9 in Badji who can stretch the field a little bit. Nelson Valdez does a really good job of being a back-to-goal No. 9. Just subtle difference based on personalities of the players."
The emergence of Roldan and the addition of Lodeiro on the wing have put the Sounders in position to secure a spot in MLS Cup, and possibly a home match if Montreal beat Toronto in the second leg of the Eastern Conference final.
Roldan has not relinquished his place in the starting lineup over the second half of the season because of the confidence he’s gained.
Roldan is on the verge of a United States call-up.
“At the beginning of the season, I didn’t feel like the game was slow," Roldan said. "Toward the second part of the season, the game slowed down and I was able to pick up my head after my first touch and feel less pressure on the ball."
Seattle’s defensive midfielders will play in a similar fashion to Colorado’s pair, with Alonso as the bruiser in front of the back four and Roldan given a license to move forward when he can. The one stark contrast between the two is Roldan’s surges into the attacking area are limited and measured.
Roldan, and Friberg to a certain extent, will be asked to drop a bit deeper on Sunday in order to prevent Colorado from striking early and then sitting back to hold on to a 1-0 result.
One way the Sounders can counteract the Rapids’ search for a tally in the first half is to hold possession and slowly break down the home side’s back line. That begins with Alonso, who is one of the most accurate passes in MLS. The 31-year-old completed 92.2 percent of his 64 passes in the first leg, per WhoScored.
Alonso could hold the key to Seattle’s success in the second leg.
If Seattle gain control of the match through Alonso, they’ll be able to hunt for an away goal themselves. The Sounders know firsthand how crucial the away goals rule can be in determining a playoff series.
"We were the beneficiaries a couple years ago against Dallas," Schmetzer said. "We were on the wrong side of the scoreline as far as road goals with LA in 2014. I think it’s part of the rules and we have to deal with the rules."
Don’t be surprised if Sunday’s second leg comes down to a 1-0 or 1-1 result given the tactical nature of both sides. What we should expect from the start is a measured battle in midfield that could tip the balance of the contest in an instant.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.