TORONTO FC – FORWARD SEBASTIAN GIOVINCO
Opening statement on the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Championships and what this rivalry game against Montreal means to Toronto FC.
Giovinco: It is an extremely important game for everybody, and for us, nothing really changes approach-wise and attitude-wise. And we are ready to face it in the best possible mindset.
On having an injury later in the season, how difficult was it to come back, and if he feels like he’s back to his best now
Giovinco: Nothing happens by chance, and the timing of the injury, although being unfortunate, maybe had a lesson to teach. And now I am back in my best possible shape.
On how the game in Montreal changed by being moved to Olympic Stadium, both with the change in the playing surface to artificial turf and also being in a bigger venue with 60,000 people, and how excited he is to play in front of a crowd like that
Giovinco: Soccer is the most beautiful and most popular sport in the world and deserves huge attendance, and we can only be more inspired and supported by more people. So the more people, the better for us and the more exciting for everybody. And pressure-wise, obviously it is going to be on us as much as it’s going to be on them. As far as the surface, of course, we would like to get to this point to such important games and playing the best possible conditions, but that’s just one factor among many others in the game.
On new teams like Montreal and Toronto heading into the Eastern Conference Championship and whether that’s a good thing for MLS
Giovinco: To the conference final, only the best teams in the conference get to the finals. So this year, this season we proved to be the best, along with Montreal, and these two teams deserve to be in the finals.
On what the biggest challenge is with playing on artificial turf field
Giovinco: So the choice obviously has been done by Montreal, by the Impact. So obviously the pressure, and they made the choice probably to guarantee the maximum support and participate their own team. In reality the pressure of a choice is on them, not on us. We just prepare to play our game on whatever surface, and what I expect is a very defensive game on their part, and we’ll get ready for that.
Given that these two teams met last year in the playoffs and it came to a disappointing end for Toronto. Does this year’s chance to make amends for that add something special alongside of it being a rivalry match?
Giovinco: It is just an additional motivation for me and the whole team to do better than last year and erase last year’s memory.
On how home field advantage for Toronto at BMO Field is now bigger and expanded, and also on if there was some difficulty for the team late in the season to win home games.
Giovinco: This is not the moment in time to think at all about the second leg of this competition. Right now we are focused and I am personally focused on the first game which is going to be the most important task at hand at this point in time.
On what players from other countries think about the very unique North American system of playing a very long season and then deciding the champion with only a few games in a playoff games
Giovinco: I personally like the change, and the change in regime from one way of playing to the other, from the regular season to the playoffs. And I’ve experienced last year and I really liked it, this year even more, of course. And once we know and I know what we are going to face, then we just focus to get prepared and get ready for what the task is going to be.
TORONTO FC – HEAD COACH GREAG VANNEY
On going into the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Championships vs. rival the Montreal Impact
Vanney: My thoughts on the rivalry and the match are I think it’s great for both MLS, and I think it’s great for soccer in Canada that two Canadian teams get to compete against each other in such a meaningful moment of the year and a meaningful home-and-away series. Last year was just a small taste of that, and obviously that first match, which was the play-in match, we started extremely poorly in that game and paid dearly for that, but I thought it was just a taste of the rivalry that is continuing to build between these two franchises. The Montreal-Toronto rivalry in hockey and other sports that goes way, way back, and probably soccer as well, but not obviously in MLS. But each time we play these games that are more meaningful than the last, I think the more this rivalry continues to grow and become more exciting and more interesting for the fans. And I think the players are starting to feel that same sort of buildup in this match, and obviously history will play a part in it just from last year. We have enough guys on this roster from last year who remember that day and were embarrassed on that day, as was myself, but our mentality and our mindset as we start this series will be different than what it was last year. So we’re very much looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a great series and one that I think fans will find very interesting.
On Sebastian [Giovinco] being a big snub in the MVP race, [Ignacio] Piatti barely being talked about in the final stretch, whether Piatti is under appreciated for what he’s done in the league, and how Vanney is trying to take Pitatti out of the game as much as possible?
Vanney: I think Piatti amongst his peers and players and teams that play against him and us in particular in this scenario speaking for us, we don’t underestimate him. We very much know his value to the team and his ability to create and to finish. So obviously he’s one of their players that we really have to keep an eye on, and we have to know where he is at all times. In my opinion one of his greatest strengths is what people don’t sometimes see and what he does before he actually gets the ball. He’s a guy who’s very, very clever about his moments when he’s helping the team defend, when he sees that the team is about to win the ball and then he’s quickly transitioning into an attacking action. Before anyone else on the field is transitioning, he’s already transitioning, which is what he wins fragments of time, seconds above everybody else, and that’s where he gets his space and that’s where he gets his separation from defenders. And then what we all see is his ability to take on defenders one vs. one and to score. Really for me what sets him apart from a lot of players in this league is his recognition in his craft to anticipate when transitions are going to happen and be one step ahead of the opposition when those moments happen. And for us it’s obviously to be aware of him at all times, especially and most notably when we have possession of the ball and making sure that in those moments when he separates from the defensive effort to transition, that we have a keen awareness to where he is in addition to other players, but I think he is very, very clever about that. So we have to be organized. We have to be very aware of his surroundings and make sure that we’re accountable in moments before transitions take place.
On there being a lot of talk about the 3-5-2 both with the National team and even overseas in the Premier League and the genesis of that idea to bringing it to his side and some of the ups and downs that he has experienced in working out some of the kinks
Vanney: For us it was a system, if you will, that we used in specific situations, scenarios, sometimes against specific opponents. And over the last couple of years, whether it was us pushing at the end of a game to try to get a goal and we would swap somebody out and be a little more attacking minded sometimes in the 3-5-2, play a little more man to man in the back sometimes if we needed to push for a goal. That was one way we used it. We also used it at times when we wanted to lock down, what we call our lockdown, which is to preserve or protect the goal, and we added what looks more like a fifth defender versus of three defenders. So we’ve used it in various scenarios mostly over the course of the last couple of years, and this year as we started to get more comfortable with it, we employed it a couple of times against specific opponents for very specific reasons. And through sort of training it and using it in these moments, the team became more and more comfortable with it, and we started to use it a little bit more at the end of the season. But I still think it’s one of these that it works best with certain teams under certain circumstances and scenarios that make sense. And again, the guys around and in the back specifically have gotten more and more comfortable with it in their decisions and how to move in it, and so it’s become beneficial for us. I think we’re pretty seamless between rotating between a diamond and the 3-5-2. They’re not totally dissimilar systems, though they appear so when you write them down on paper, but the way we move in them and various things, they’re not so far away from each other from just the principal standpoint. But we use them now and again because the guys have gotten comfortable in it. We’ve used the diamond mostly against Montreal and have had a lot of success with that as well. So we feel comfortable being able to go in either direction.
On Don Garber speaking earlier this year in Montreal about the league’s commitment to grow and enhance soccer in Canada, but in what way specifically does Vanney think having two Canadian teams will have an impact or show that growth?
Vanney: Television viewership I think will be one. I think between our two stadiums; Montreal having moved their game into Olympic Stadium means that 60,000 or so fans will attend and have that experience of this opening game, which is something that could ignite, whether it’s more fans to the game or whether it’s young players to want to get into the game. The more you have experiences in the game, the more it starts to grow. And so again, having such a meaningful match between two Canadian teams, I think, will draw more eyes to it, both in the stadiums and on the field. We also in our stadium fully expect to sell out. I think by my calculation there could be 100,000 fans between the two stadiums in these two games. That’s pretty amazing, and I’m not sure if MLS has ever done that before in a two-legged tie to get over 100,000 fans in the stadium. So not to mention, I think it’s just going to be a very attractive matchup for the Canadian viewership across Canada. For the first time two Canadian teams playing each, then puts a Canadian team into MLS Cup Final, and again, all of these little moments, whether it’s a rivalry or whatever, all these little moments to help build the sport and we’ve seen it grow through MLS over the years, and this is just another where the emphasis and the focal point goes on a little bit north of the border here in Canada. So no question that some growth will come out of it. How we ultimately measure that I think is tough to say and it might be over years; it may not be immediate, but we’ll see it, I think, in television viewership and butts in the seats, if you will, in the stands right away.
MONTREAL IMPACT – HEAD COACH MAURO BIELLO AND MIDFIELDER PATRICE BERNIER
On Bernier’s thoughts about playing an Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs Conference Championships playoff game against a clear rival in Toronto FC
Bernier: Well, first and foremost it’s very good for the club in terms of establishing historical moments to be at the Eastern Conference final. To play it against Toronto, even better. And second of all, also as Canadian, it’s great for Canadian soccer, because two clubs now out of the three are reaching the Eastern Conference final, and one will be able to attend the final. So it shows the growth of, I guess, club soccer, professional club soccer here in Canada. And just looking forward to a big game, and there’s going to be a lot of crowd support on both sides. So I’m looking forward to that. These are the types of games that you want to play.
On Biello’s thoughts playing against Toronto, clearly a big rival in Canada
Biello: Yeah, I think obviously it’s a special game. I think history is being made here in Canada in terms of a soccer series, being two clubs in the MLS that are in a conference final, especially for us as a club to reach this part in the playoffs, but at the same time it’s a great opportunity for Canadian soccer to grow, and for us to play against our rival, Toronto, we’re hoping for a great game and all the support that we could get.
On Impact games before this that have drawn really big crowds in the CONCACAF Champions League, when David Beckham came, which was sort of a spectacle in its own right, but if this seems a little different from that in part because of the short notice and in part because there’s not necessarily the same one-game appeal as there was for some of those past games. What does it feel like up there for now as Impact watches the buzz and what does it say that a game like this in particular can now draw 60,000 to Olympic stadium?
Bernier: It’s a great game, great venue to have the Olympic Stadium at this stage of the season, and like you said, before it was one game and now this is an Eastern Conference final. And you’re looking at, yeah, this is not like Champions League where it was the beginning of the season, so people didn’t quite get the factor of CONCACAF in two different years. Well, this is the accumulation of 34-game season plus playoffs and now we’re in a short turnaround, and yeah, you see the people of Montreal responding very well, Toronto also, for this game to be watched and supported. Yeah, so this is going to be special. And like I said, it’s a historical moment because the club has been in the league since 2012 and now in the fifth season to be able to get to this stage and hopefully move on to other moments, but it is a great moment and just to appreciate and enjoy it. But it’s great to see that the crowd has really responded and we’re able to fill out the stadium with 60,000 seats.
Biello: Yeah, I think definitely there’s a big buzz in the city here about this game. I think to have possibly 60,000 fans pushing us, obviously for us it could help us and motivate us even more to get the results that we want versus a very good team. And like I said, it’s great for soccer in the city and also in this country.
On if this is any different than the last previous games they’ve been a part of that draw crowds like this
Biello: Obviously it’s different. We were in the final against Club America. Again, there was a big buzz about that game being obviously playing in a CONCACAF final. It’s huge after we went into Mexico and tied and came back here. For us it was tremendous to be a part of that. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the results that we wanted, but nonetheless, it was a great experience for everybody that was involved, the players, the coaches, to be able to learn from that. And I think that’s what’s important. And now going into a game of the same magnitude, hopefully we can learn from the experience that we had against America in managing emotions and staying concentrated for 90 minutes.
Given the struggles with the Canadian Men’s National Team, how important is it for the Canadian club teams to really seize these moments and these opportunities in the spot light?
Bernier: As we’ve said before, this is a big moment for Canadian soccer, and I think, yeah, we always want the national team to have a stellar performance that could ignite soccer in Canada. Now you have two clubs that have met before and they’re meeting again at the biggest scale game. And so this is for Canadian soccer a big moment, and so this is a game also that kids could look upon that if you are in Montreal, if you are in Toronto, as the type of games you want to play. Club soccer in terms of professional is probably where now most men’s national teams from youth and to see that this will be where the pool will be coming from, Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. So this game can be looked upon by younger generations and looked at as something that they want to aspire to and play. They know they can play for their hometown team or a local club team and be in a final or get to a final stage and look at it as, yeah, in terms of professional environment we can go and dream about playing a game like that on Canadian soil.
On Bernier’s thought on playing the game on artificial turf and what challenges that presents to him as a player
Bernier: The turf is the turf. So it’s always you have to get accustomed to it, because of course, most of our games in the season are on grass and you train on grass most of the season. But we are at home, so we’ll have time to adjust to the turf with the few days that we have to prepare. I think after that as a professional, you just have to make sure that you are fine-tuned body-wise, and then after that it’s one of the conditions that you have to play on. But I don’t think it makes it any different. It’s just one game, but we’ll have a few days to get on the turf and prepare properly.
On what Biello has made of the way Matteo Mancosu has adapted to Major League Soccer thus far in this short period of time, and how Biello thinks Mancosu has helped the Montreal Impact down the season stretch, and especially in the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs
Biello: I think he’s adapted very well in the group. Sometimes it’s not easy coming in halfway point of the season and adapting to a group, to a culture, to a city, but he’s responded well. Whether he came off the bench and gave us that added spark, whether he started games, he’s given us a different look up front in terms of his profile, in terms of his qualities, to be able to get in behind, being able to constantly be in movement. These are all things that have benefited our team and our play, but at the same time we’re very happy the way he’s adapted. He’s a good guy. He’s very quiet, somebody who’s been able to fit in in the room and be very productive on the field at the same time.
On what both Biello and Bernier think about Bernardello, who played for Montreal before and then came back, how has he helped force that midfield that looked so good in the playoffs, and how important he is in going up against Toronto in this next round
Bernier: Different circumstances from the first time, but this time around he came, he already knew the city because, of course, when you come in the first time, you have to adapt, and that’s always something that plays in the factor of a player’s performance, but this second time around he already knew Montreal, knew the club very well and came in. And you saw after a few games, he got adjusted very well. And you know that you see he’s feisty, he’s very good in defensive one-on-ones and also good at passing. So this time around it’s just a question of his adaptation you have to put it aside because he already knew the club and the city and just came in and fit right away and helped the team. And more and more you saw a glimpse, the more and more you saw him fitter, better. So he had a good connection on that side, and then I think we saw the true Bernardello this season compared to when he came in 2013 where there was, like I said before, just the time that he had to acclimate and then he had injuries at that time also. It was very hard for him to get into stride, while this year he’s played through, and now we’ve seen him at the end of this year and very important in the midfield in terms of breaking up play and to be able to restart the attacks also.
Biello: I mean basically adaptation for Bernardello obviously the second time around, knowing the city, knowing some of the staff members, the adaptation was easier, and you know, we’re very happy with his contribution to the team in terms of what he brought in the midfield and being able to close down and win balls, win duels, and having that ability to start attacks at the same time. I think the more he got comfortable, the more he’s been able to play as a starter within the group, the better he’s become; and we saw a very good performance in New York in what he could bring just in the ability of closing down certain key players, but at the same time having that intelligence to keep the ball and allow the team to be in possession.
On Ignacio Piatti not being called into the Argentina camp for this past international break, if Biello that snub is going to give him some extra motivation for these upcoming games, and if Biello thinks Piatti should be in the conversation or deserves the call to the Argentine National Team
Biello: I know for a fact it’s a big dream for him to play for his national team, that’s for sure, to be able to represent his country. I’ve spoken to him on different occasions about how much it would mean to him to get an opportunity. At the same time we know how many good Argentines there are worldwide and how many players there are to choose from, but I think his play has been outstanding this year. He’s been able to unbalance opposition with his ability to dribble, his ability to pass. I mean he’s had a tremendous year, and I hope he can continue into these last few games here and maybe get that selection. That would make him very happy.
On if Biello and Bernier think Piatti was under appreciated for the season that he had this year because he wasn’t really too much in the conversation for MVP, and on what is it about Piatti that makes him so special and makes him work so well and be so effective in the Montreal Impact system
Bernier: I think that Ignacio plays — we play in a medium market that’s not necessarily all we see in the States because our games are more often on local channels. So sometimes people get to see him now towards the end of the season where we’re more talked about because we’re headed closer to the playoffs and in the playoffs, and Ignacio is just a tremendous player to play on because he’s an X factor in the game. Just takes him a few seconds, a minute to change the whole factor of the game. So fortunately for me he’s top in the league, he’s top league. It’s one of those players that it’s very hard to — even in training — it’s very hard to stop him. It’s pretty much when he wants to, he’s able to create space for himself and for others, which is great and we’re happy to have him. It’s been tremendous to play with him for the last two years, in training and games, because you know that he can just create a spark out of nothing during the game.
Biello: I think obviously Ignacio had an incredible season. I think a lot of people need to understand he plays as a wide midfielder where he had responsibilities to help out defensively, so that’s what makes it even more remarkable the season that he had in terms of his offensive output. And obviously he’s very good in transition and his ability to anticipate the play and being in the right spot to go forward and then his ability to dribble and unbalance it, I think, is one of the best in the league, if not the best. And for us having Ignacio helps us in terms of if we’re sitting lower, but at the same time it’s a guy that is a very good passer that if you give him that space, he could play that ball that makes the difference. So for us, like Patrice said, it’s someone that could change the outcome of the game at any moment, like Giovinco, and we’re hoping that he can continue in this form right now.
COLORADO RAPIDS – HEAD COACH PABLO MASTROENI and GOALKEEPER ZAC MacMATH
On Mastroeni’s initial thoughts headed into the match against Seattle Sounders FC and what he is looking forward to in this game
Mastroeni: Just for me, it’s been a fantastic run, and playing against a team like Seattle with the history they have and opening up in Seattle, I think, is a fantastic opportunity for the group.
Again, we want to continue to try to play the same brand that we’ve played all year. We’ve used these first 34 regular season games as a dress rehearsal for moments like this that are big, that are at times daunting for other people. But for us, I think we have a great group, unified group, that is ready to go to Seattle and put our best foot forward against a very, very good team.
On MacMath’s initial thoughts about facing Seattle Sounders FC as he is likely stepping into goal in a big competition
MacMath: Obviously, it’s been a long time since I’ve gotten the chance to play. I’m very excited. Obviously it’s an unfortunate injury that happened with Tim, but I’m ready to step up and help the team move towards our main goal of getting to the MLS Cup Finals and raising the trophy at the end of the year.
On Mastroeni’s sense as to Shkëlzen Gashi’s and Jermaine Jones’ availability, on Gashi becoming much more productive later in the season and his acclamation and fitting him into the way that Colorado attacks
Mastroeni: Jermaine obviously played last night and didn’t report any injuries, so he should be full go for the game against Seattle. Gashi is making steady improvements every day with his ankle. Having said that, we’re going to continue to wait before making a decision as to whether or not we want him to go into that game, whether he’s capable of going in that game, and/or do we wait to have him at the home leg here.
As far as his acclamation to the United States, to Colorado, to the team, to the style of play, I think it’s taken a little bit of time. But the one thing with a guy like Gashi is he’s played at the highest level. He’s played Champions League games. He knows the little moments and what to look for as far as imposing himself on the game from an attacking perspective. Defensively he’s been really good pressing the game and understanding those things as well. And I think in the big moments, in the difficult moments of the season, you’re relying on a lot of guys with experience to step up and make a difference, and I think Gashi’s done that.
On if it feels in a lot of ways like MacMath has been in this situation before, throughout his career, ups and downs and now after being on the bench for a while, getting a chance to step in in a big moment like this. How does it compare to where he’s been in the past, being on this biggest stage and being on a new team?
MacMath: I think obviously there’s been a few ups and downs in my career, but it goes to show if you continue to work hard and do your best day-in and day-out and wait for your opportunities, they’ll come for you. This is as big of an opportunity as I’ll get, helping the team in the Western Conference finals. Hoping to get to the MLS final.
On when and where MacMath was when he first found out about the news that Tim was going to miss the entire playoffs, and what MacMath’s initial reaction was
MacMath: I was definitely watching the game last Tuesday against Mexico. I saw him go down and then continue playing and obviously had to come off midway through the first half. I then texted Tim that night after the game, and he told me it didn’t look good and we were waiting for the MRI the next day. Obviously when I came to practice the next day, pretty much knew then that he was going to be out for quite a long time.
On what some of the difficulties MacMath thinks he might face leading up to the game, making that transition back to just being the starter again
MacMath: Well, I think with practice leading up to this game on Tuesday, I’ll get plenty of live reps to the first team, which is always nice. I think getting myself settled in that first 20 minutes of the game will be very helpful, just kind of getting used to the pace of the game again. Obviously, it’s hard to replicate game speed in practice, but it’s something that I’ve been used to this year, and I’m excited to get back in it.
On Mastroeni thoughts that before Tim Howard came along, Zac was already one of the best keepers in the league this year, and what Mastroeni can tell some of the fans who might be worried about that transition of the goalkeeper for the next game
Mastroeni: Well, again, Zac started with the group in preseason. I think he’s proven over the course of seven months until July that he’s a first-rate goalkeeper in this league. Fantastic with his feet, great in distribution, making great saves, has a great goal-against percentage this year.
So the one thing that we set out in the beginning of the year is to be a complete team. I think throughout the course of the year there’s been our big players missing. Jermaine Jones missed the first six games and then he missed four months; Tim Howard didn’t come in until July. Gashi went away with Euros. Kevin Doyle was out for eight weeks with an injury to his lower leg. And the group just keeps moving forward.
I think, like I said earlier, the 34 games of the regular season were a fantastic dress rehearsal for us. And a guy like Zac coming into the goal, he’s familiar to the back line; he’s familiar to the group – a great teammate of Tim’s. So this is not about individuals. This is about a collective effort in finding a way to beat a great Seattle team in two legs.
On it being quite a few months since the Rapids have played the Sounders, which have added Nicolas Lodeiro, and Colorado plans on stopping them ahead of this two-legged series
Mastroeni: Well, without giving too much away, I think there’s different ways you can do that. But I think for us, it’s making sure we go to Seattle with the right mentality. And what I mean by that is full concentration for 90-plus minutes, understanding that away goals are very critical, so I think you can read between the lines as far as how important it is for us to make sure that we’re going there with the intention of making this a great sporting event for the fans and making sure that we try to impose ourselves on the game in the many different ways that we’re capable of doing that.
MacMath: And I would just say that obviously we’ve had the best defense in the league. We’ve proven that this season. And those guys have played against the best forwards in the league, week-in and week-out, and we’re just going to continue to defend as a team and as a group and let the guys make decisions throughout the game of what they think is best, and hopefully that will help us keep a clean sheet in Seattle.
On the Rapids plan to sit MacMath after acquiring Tim Howard, and on if it was a tough decision to make a change like that when they had a guy playing as well as MacMath was playing, or if Howard’s track record was just too much to ignore
Mastroeni: Yeah, I think there’s a lot more to it than just changing a player that was at the top of his game. Best goal-against average in the league, in great form for an American legend, a guy that’s done it at the highest level, in World Cups. So there is a lot more that goes into it than just that.
Obviously from my standpoint there is a very difficult decision to make, and one decision as a coach that you don’t like to make, right? Having said that, it’s a part of professional sports that you have to make these types of decisions that aren’t always the easiest and may or may not always be the best for the group, right? But I felt that the moment we knew that Tim was coming, I sat down with Zac. We had a face-to-face conversation about some of the implications and how it could effect him.
And, again, with Zac, we came up with a plan, right, as to how we can best kind of look after Zac in the meantime and put him in a position so that if Tim goes away with the National Team, if something happens to Tim, that he’s ready to step in and make a difference. So it’s almost ironic that we sit here today, and Tim is injured and Zac now has the opportunity to step into goal in this type of situation.
So credit to Zac for being prepared mentally and being able to be in this position and to effect the game as he will in the next couple games.
On Mastroeni having full confidence in Zac MacMath, especially the way MacMath has played and maybe the way he’s handled the situation as well
Mastroeni: I would agree with you. It takes a man, right, to be able to take that kind of information, given his performances and not sulk, and not throw his toys and not run out of the room and slam doors. But to look at someone in the face and go, okay, this is your decision. All right. I’m a teammate. I’m a team player. I’ve got to respect that. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I respect it. I’m going to go out every day and prove to myself that I’m worthy of being a starter on this team, and I think that’s what he’s done.
Again, it’s about attitude. It’s about mentality. It’s about earning the right to be on the field. I think, you know, like I said, it’s unbelievable that the situation happened. But what’s more unbelievable to me is that Zac is going to step in between the pipes full of confidence, full of belief. And the last four or five months of his career had a lot of adversity, but he’s found ways to contribute and now move forward to get one of the greatest opportunities that any goalkeeper would want in his career.
On how important getting a guy like Marco Pappa to share his point of view is since he has played so many big games in Seattle, knows the field, and knows the crowd, knows some of these players.
Mastroeni: First of all, with Marco, unfortunately Marco suffered a little bit of a setback with a hamstring that’s been kind of hampering him since before the LA series, so we’ve been cautious with Marco from that perspective. We really look forward to getting him back to full health to be in Seattle. I know how much it would mean to him to be on the field and to contribute, and to have an opportunity to beat his old team.
So from that perspective, I’m really excited about the progress he’s made and look forward to having him with the group in Seattle.
On when the team has been so dominant at home if Colorado comes into Seattle maybe taking less chances, being more compact, and then try to finish it at home
Mastroeni: As far as the way we approach this game, like I said, away goals are huge. Being that we’ve been pretty good at home and given up very few goals at home, I feel like there’s a little bit to get after in Seattle. Picking the right moments, obviously, we don’t want to concede. But if it means that we concede to score a goal, then you’ll take that trade off. It’s definitely a balance to be had. But one that I would say we’d err on the side of being a bit more aggressive.
SEATTLE SOUNDERS FC – HEAD COACH BRIAN SCHMETZER and GOALKEEPER STEFAN FREI
On Schmetzer’s initial thoughts about this game coming up against the Colorado Rapids?
Schmetzer: Well, we’re looking forward to a great match. Pablo has done a great job with his team. I think early on in the season when we played him, some of the commentary that we had in our coaches room after we played him was that was a team that believed they could win. They believed in the way they were playing. So we’re happy that the first match is here at home. It will be in front of a really hyped up, fantastic crowd, and our preparation has been decent. Obviously there have been challenges with it being an international break, but the guys seem to be ready and just looking forward to a really good game.
On Frei’s thoughts on facing the Colorado Rapids heading into the Western Conference Championship
Frei: Excited to obviously get the opportunity to play in a Western Conference final. But like Schmetzer said, Colorado’s a good team, a team that has a lot of belief in themselves and each other, so they’re going to be difficult opponents.
But also happy to be playing at home, and we have to make sure to make it count. A lot of people have been saying, the away goal rule plays an important factor. So we’ll have to repeat what we’ve done against Dallas and get a good result at home, and try to keep that shutout and set us up for a good second game in Colorado. But looking forward to it. It should be a good crowd as always, and I can’t wait.
On Schmetzer’s challenge of breaking down a team that’s been so defensively strong this year and so committed and disciplined in their shape, and what his plan is to breaking them down
Schmetzer: Well, I think the same way we’ve kind of done it since our coaching staff, the new coaching staff has taken over. We like to be a possession-based team. We like to make sure that we find the right balance of playing direct through Jordan Morris’s strengths and finding that possession, that extended possession in our opponent’s half of the field to create opportunities. That way I think you also have the set piece dynamic. I think with Chad Marshall and Roman Torres we have really some effective weapons. You add into that Brad Evans who is very good in the air. You have Nelson Valdez who you’ve seen can score a couple goals with his head, and we have a formidable team on set pieces. The delivery, of course, with Nico has been tremendous.
So, look, we know Colorado is the best team in the league defensively, we certainly expect that, and we will just go out there and try to play Seattle Sounders soccer. If we create enough opportunities, I think we have the quality that we will be able to finish one of those opportunities.
On how Jordan Morris is progressing with his injury
Schmetzer: Good. Every day he’s getting a little better. So my mantra has been with all of our injuries that we’ve had as of late, it’s all hands on deck. If he’s healthy, he’s going to play. So we are just keeping the fires burning, trying to get him on the field as quickly as we can.
On how this compares to the high-pressure games that the Sounders have played over the years in MLS because he’s done enough to win the job and made a late-season surge that’s got a lot of momentum going their way
Schmetzer: If I’m clear on your question, I mean, here’s the way I would answer it, I guess. Every game since we’ve taken over has been a must-win game. We were so far behind all the other teams that every single game that we’ve had so far to this date has had a big meaning behind it. I would say the games, the later they go in the season, that ratchets up even a notch or two because you see the goal, your ultimate goal of winning an MLS Cup is certainly within your reach.
So I think that it feels around here in Seattle, it might not be in Philly, but here in Seattle, the fans out on the streets, the people that I talk to, my friends here and around the Seattle area, I mean, it’s a big deal because people are excited about some of the turnaround, the story of the turnaround, losing Dempsey, losing our best player, there’s a ton of good story lines here.
So I think it’s a big match, and it rivals. Maybe it’s not a cup final yet, but it rivals some of the very tough games we’ve had against Portland. It’s rivaled some of those games against L.A. I mean, it’s a big game for us, at least from where I’m sitting.
On what his message has been and what he’s emphasizing during the international break because they’re on such a great roll but don’t have a game again until next Tuesday
Schmetzer: Well, the messaging, and perhaps more importantly the way we train, I think those two are simultaneous. So the messaging has been we’re going back to work. I like to give the guys their time. After big victories I like to say, hey, let’s live in this moment. Let’s enjoy this moment, but tomorrow we’ve got to get back to work. That’s been one of our mantras.
So the messaging has been, yeah, we’ve got to get back to work. The way we train, how we train, the intensity of training has been good. I think that will help us.
But you’re absolutely right. You don’t know with such a long break. I know that every single player on our team probably would prefer to just keep playing, because when the games are coming fast and they were really into everything, the team performed and they did well. So we’ll see what happens coming out of the break. But the messaging and the way we train, we’ve done everything we can to try and get them sharp.
On with a two-week break, if he feels that with the players or the coaching staff he has to fight an inclination to maybe overthink Colorado spending too much time since he’s seen everything out of Colorado he’s going to see before the match happens
Schmetzer: Well, from that standpoint, it gives you more opportunity to dig a little deeper. I mean, the devil’s always in the details. So, yes, the staff, our sports science staff, our coaching staff, we’ve been able to pour over film. That’s just more good information to make decisions.
I don’t think we’re going to overthink things. We always worry about ourselves first and we’re not going to change to other teams. So we’ll just take the information that we gather and apply it to how we play, and I think that’s important.
I agree that coaches can get ahead of themselves at times and try and do things. That’s human nature. But we’re trying to do the best job we can to fight that inclination.
On Colorado’s tremendous home season without home loss and a particular good defense puts extra pressure on Tuesday’s match to get a result at home against the Rapids
Schmetzer: Not really. I mean, okay, they’re a good home team. You can tell by the statistics of every team in the league, that MLS clubs win more at home. That’s a given. Some of the things, I think we stopped ourselves 28, 29, some ridiculous number of home wins. When Lamar Neagle scored a goal late, I think the Galaxy were undefeated at home earlier this year. I think they had a bunch of draws when we went down there and got a road result of 4-2.
I think that we’d like to play at home in front of our fans. I think that sparks the guys, and if we can get a result at home, that’s going to be great. But if the result doesn’t get — if we don’t get a result at home, I mean, we’re not afraid to go on the road and have good performances. Early on against Orlando, we won 3-1. I talked about the L.A. score, 4-2. We went up to our arch rivals Vancouver and round out a result missing a bunch of key guys. So I think when it comes down to this time of the year, I think the teams certainly have a little edge playing at home. But I’m not so sure it’s as noticeable as during a bigger sample size of a regular season.
I think these games are going to be extremely close, and it’s just going to come down to which players on whatever team make plays.
On if Zac MacMath back in goal for them makes him view that as much of a drop of, if any, in terms of losing Tim Howard and going back to MacMath
Schmetzer: He had a 0.69 or 0.67 goals-against average, so I’m not taking anything for granted or anything lightly. And I have to remind everybody this is a team sport, and I know Stef would echo my comments that he’s a tremendous goalkeeper.
Stef’s had some very, very good games for us. Kept us in a ton of games, but he would be the first one to give credit where credit’s due to some of his defenders and midfielders, and even the forwards to track back at times to help him out.
So with MacMath in the goal, we’re taking it as Colorado is a good team. Again, I can answer that again. We lost our best player and we still found ways to win games. Colorado certainly lost a good player, but it’s a team sport, and they will try and regroup and play. I fully expect them to play with confidence and it should be again, like I said, it should be a good match. It should be a good series.
On if any part of Frei feels for Zac MacMath with the position he’s being put in by being inserted into the heat of the battle at a very pivotal juncture of the season
Frei: Yeah, it can be a difficult situation, but he’s a veteran. So he knows how to prepare for him for the moment. He’s obviously had a terrific season up until the point where the team has shown up. I’m sure, like I said, he’s a veteran, and he probably knew that even though he wasn’t the first keeper anymore, that he needed to make sure he was ready when he was going to be called upon.
So I’m sure he’s been preparing for it all these months, and now’s the time. Now he’s going to have to go through it, mentally go through it, and make sure that when he shows up here at CenturyLink, which he’s done before, like I said, he’s a veteran, he knows what to expect. He knows what the crowd’s going to be like, what the energy on the field’s going to be like. I think that’s going to help him.
I have no doubt that for them, like Schmetzer just mentioned, it’s same thing for us that we’ve been preaching that defense is a whole team effort. It starts with the strikers atop, kind of shuffling the play over to one side, allowing the defenders and midfielders to kind of feel where the ball’s going to be or the possibility of where the ball’s going to go, and that makes our job a lot easier in the back. And I think Colorado their success has been the same defensively. It’s not just the one-man show. It’s the whole team that needs to buy in defensively, and that’s proven them to be a very, very good team defensively.
But like I said, he’s had a fantastic year, and with all his experience, I don’t expect him to struggle too much. Hopefully, we can make him uncomfortable as soon as possible as soon as the game starts, and not really let him have too much time to find a way into the game. But he’s the goalkeeper.
On Frei being probably one of the best goalkeepers in the MLS and his perspective behind Tim Howard and his career, and what he’s meant for U.S. Soccer if maybe this is a terminating injury for his career
Frei: I mean, if you look at his career, he’s had an unbelievable career. It’s something that I think a lot of young kids especially in America can look up to and kind of learn from. It’s funny you mentioned Tim Howard. I had a small interaction with him before I was professional. I had a chance to go to Chicago when he was still there and doing the North American tour for the preseason. And I trained with him for a little bit, and my mom actually ended up taking a picture of us training together which I had him sign.
But I remember him signing it and writing on it dream big, and that’s something that always stuck with me. So even in a moment where I was already very close to the brink of becoming a professional goalkeeper, I was in college at that point, he still gave me extra motivation and made me feel like this is a guy that helps me to make that next step.
So he’s been tremendous, I think, for the sport in general. Obviously, his career speaks for itself. It’s going to hurt a team if a player like that goes down, no doubt. But he’s been a professional throughout, and I don’t know what the extent of his injury is, exactly, but I’m sure he’s going to work his butt off to come back as quickly as possible. And as we know, goalkeepers can play a bit longer. So I expect him to be coming back healthy and be the Tim Howard we all know.
On what Schmetzer expects about the game being won and lost a lot of times in the middle of the field, how much Lodeiro has changed the team, how Ozzie Alonso has raised his game during the stretch run, and on what that midfield battle will be like considering Colorado’s central midfield has obviously been an important component of their success
Schmetzer: Sure, I’ll start out by giving a shout out to Mr. Mike Azira who has done a tremendous job for them. I’m really happy for Mike and the way it’s turned out in Colorado. You add Cronin, Jones, they have a very formidable mid-field trio, so it will be a game where a lot of those plays that can make a difference in a game, a lot of it will hinge around which group of three can kind of maintain tempo, dictate tempo, make some plays, get their team involved, get their teammates involved.
So as much as I love Mike, I love Ozzie; I love Cristian; I love Nico. They’re tremendous players. Each one of them would be deserving of an interview on their own. But since you asked about Ozzie, I’ll tell you that Ozzie is having an MVP type of season. I think he has really refocused, really I think he’s dedicated himself to being a pro on and off the field, and it shows in his play.
I made him captain in Brad Evans’ absence. He’s taken over that role very well. He cares about the team. This is a team that we signed him initially in ’09. So he and Brad Evans and Zach Scott have been the three guys that have maintained that continuity since ’09. So he’s a big, big part of our club, and he has made a big resurgence.
You obviously see in the press about Nico and the talent that he has. One of the guys that has made Ozzie a lot better, has been the play of Cristian Roldan, and even Erik Friberg when he’s filled in there for me. So I think that group as a whole has done really well for the club.