1. The MLS Final conveniently coincides as a yearly state of the union for the health of the overall league. In the buildup to the match between the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC, a confidential document created by the Boston Consulting Group in 2016 was leaked to The Athletic. The BCG study laid the blueprint for how MLS could simultaneously increase their quality of play while maintaining parity, concluding that the key was to improve the level of players from 4-11 that filled out a starting lineup. While the league-alloted three Designated Players come with a high standard, teams needed to raise the quality of its secondary players to increase both the ceiling and the floor of a side. The study led teams to up their spending to over $4 million to fill out a complete roster.
  2. That BCG study was particularly interesting given the league’s reputation for being the most “Moneyball” of all soccer leagues as noted in Grant Wahl’s The Beckham Experiment. Published in 2009, Wahl concluded that it was better for a team to spend $100,000 on 11 players than focus on big-name players at the expense of depth. The 2016 study splits the difference as teams can now field three high-priced DPs and eight quality secondary players at once. It is both a top-down and bottom-up approach to roster building.
  3. A question: how does our analysis shift if we were to analyze teams from all over the world from the lens of the secondary player?
  4. Regardless, more exciting, big-name rumors: Luis Suarez is reportedly interested in a move to Miami. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been linked with Milan. And Charlotte looks to be the next MLS expansion side. 
  5. On the field, this is the rubber match of a prolonged, three-match rivalry that doesn’t actually feel as intense as it should. The Sounders beat Toronto in the final in 2016, with Toronto getting their finals revenge the following year. That said, this matchup is a surprise as both teams upset conference favorites Atlanta United and LAFC.
  6. Unlike Atlanta United’s South Amercan focus from last season, it’s difficult to draw any tactical or stylistic conclusions of where the league is headed by deconstructing either side. 
  7. This is a final of personal stakes: a second title would be a defining win for Sounders manager Brian Schmetzer and place him amongst Seattle coaching greats like Pete Carroll and Lenny Wilkens. On the other end, with his reputation as the tactician, Toronto coach Greg Vanney will have to make adjustments in making up for Jozy Altidore’s quad injury which will limit the striker to a desperate substitution role.
  8. Winning the title would have tangible benefits for Michael Bradley, triggering an automatic $6.5 million extension for next season.
  9. The lineups are out: with Altidore on the bench, Toronto DP Alejandro Pozuelo fills the role at striker as a false 9.
  10. Toronto get the first shot on target off a mini-transition after an effective counterpress. With Bradley pulling the strings, Toronto are getting early possession and taking the match to Seattle. As Taylor Twellman notes, in contrast with other deep lying midfielders, Bradley doesn’t sit deep alongside his centerbacks but plays in front of them to condense the midfield area.
  11. Jordan Morris gets Seattle’s first shot on target following a one-player counter attack off a Toronto turnover. It’s a reminder of how quickly Morris can change a match with his vertical speed, and for Toronto to never relax in possession.
  12. With that said, Toronto’s passing is sloppy as they keep giving the ball away for free. The Sounders are happy to sit back and wait for counterattacking moments.
  13. Add Raul Ruidiaz to the list of Sounders attackers able to find dangerous spaces in transition. The Sounders are slowly getting their grip on the game through Nico Lodeiro, Brad Smith, and Morris on their left side
  14. Toronto’s pattern of play in switching the ball from wing to wing is effective in moving Seattle’s defense considering how basic it sounds. But their short passing remains surprisingly impercise, though they haven’t been punished thus far.
  15. Twellman continues to hammer the Sounders for sitting deep and letting Toronto dictate play in front of their home crowd. But it is giving Morris and Ruidiaz a lot of room to counter off turnovers, and Toronto have been making mistakes in possession.
  16. On cue, Morris and Lodeiro break Toronto wide open, but a potential cross to Ruidiaz gets snuffed out by Bradley’s clean-up ability.
  17. Of course, Toronto’s possession is impressive and will be the subject of social media analysis. But Toronto’s counter pressing after losing the ball is the x-factor in their ability to impose their will in this final. It shows again that having the ball is only one side of an effective possession-oriented side. Winning the ball back immediately is essential to complete the vision.
  18. Ruidiaz gets a great opportunity right before half off another quick counter. Seattle seems sleepy, yet they strike quickly. 
  19. One must give a lot of credit to Toronto for playing with this much of the ball on the road, in the final. In keeping with BCG’s insights, the “4-11” players for Toronto are supporting Bradley and Pozuelo’s DP quality in midfield. Jonathan Osario (a 2019 salary of $200,000) and Marky Delgado ($253,000) are putting out fires and giving a platform for their more well-known teammates to dictate play. In taking the study one step further, the $200,000 player seems vital for a side’s success as that number signifies a quality MLS veteran.
  20. The Sounders announce a final attendance of 69,274, a record for the most attended sporting event at CenturyLink Field. 
  21. The second half opens as the first half ended, with Toronto dictating possession. Pozuelo is impossible to take off the ball as he and Bradley have been the two best players on the field. As dominant as they are, Toronto probably misses Altidore’s extra bit of quality inside the penalty area.
  22. And there you have it: the Sounders open scoring completely against the run of play. The Sounders recover the ball in their own half and quickly switch play to the right wing. Kelvin Leerdam unleashed a wild shot that was headed wide after finding himself 1 v 1 inside the box, with Justin Morrow knocking it into his own net. To pile onto Morrow, he kept Leerdam onside during the switch of play. 
  23. As far as the match composition goes, the goal shouldn’t change much - Toronto will still be in possession, and Sounders will continue to counter.
  24. In a sign of desperation, Altidore subs into the match to create anything of danger up front.
  25. The match has predictably slowed down as the Sounders sit back and deal with Toronto crosses.
  26. And there it is, a second goal for the Sounders that probably clinches this match. Victor Rodriguez, who subbed on minutes earlier, gets the second goal off a nice 1-2 combination with Lodeiro. Both of Toronto’s centerbacks dropped too far off Rodriguez to give him a clean look at goal.
  27. While Rodriguez is the Sounders’ third highest paid player at just over $1 million, Leerdam’s $600,000 salary is nice to have as a “role player.”
  28. In their final bit of last-ditch desperation, Vanney moves centerback Omar Gonzalez to striker alongside Altidore.
  29. With Toronto going all out for goals, Ruidiaz gets the Sounders’ third off a long-ball clearance. There was nothing fancy or tactical about the sequence - Ruidiaz just straight up beat a Toronto defender with speed and finished. 
  30. Altidore gets one back in the 93rd minute to dampen the stadium for a brief moment. The referee blows the final whistle. Sounders win the MLS title in front of a historic home crowd attendance.
  31. Tactically, the Sounders displayed an effective MLS formula of not making mistakes in possession, a bend but don’t break defense, and quick switches of play in transition to isolate speedy attackers 1 v 1 against defenders. It may seem basic, but one cannot argue the results. 
  32. One final stat on team development in the “4-11” MLS era: the Sounders have 15 players on their roster making over six-figures in 2019. Toronto FC have 20 players over that mark. Thus, even without one of their main DP’s in Altidore, Toronto were still almost able to win the title just by fielding nine quality MLS players to go along with Bradley and Pozuelo.