COMMERCE CITY, CO - APRIL 22: Head coach Sigi Schmid of the Seattle Sounders FC surveys the field as he watches his team warm up prior to facing the Colorado Rapids at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on April 22, 2011 in Commerce City, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
"Must win game" is a phrase that hits many learned sports fans like fingernails on chalkboard. Not only is it overused, it's just patently inaccurate. There are few games that are legitimately 'must-in'. . . playoff games, cup finals, and so on. Any other loss can be overcome. In practice, it really just means 'this is a game you will deeply regret not winning'. And if the game against Toronto this weekend isn't really a 'must win', it's a game the Sounders would deeply regret not winning.
First, Toronto is one of the few teams in the league you can legitimately claim are not very good. MLS is as we know a parity league, and a majority of the teams are clustered into a middle ground in which any one of the team could beat any other on any given night. As our SB Nation Power Rankings show, there are three very good teams in the league, two struggling teams, and 13 teams in the middle. So when you have a game against one of those struggling teams, which these days includes Chivas USA and Toronto FC, it's important to take advantage, especially at home. Which leads us to our second reason for calling this an important game: it's the only home game for the Sounders in a month-long 5 game stretch. Although the team has started out that stretch well with an away draw with the Philadelphia Union and a difficult, memorable away win versus the Colorado Rapids, it will still be the only opportunity for the team to celebrate in front of the Qwest faithful for some time.
And the third reason it's an important game is that it will be the first game after the sudden, brutal loss of Steve Zakuani to Brian Mullan's mindless challenge. It will be an emotional match for both the team and the fans, and the healthiest release for that emotion would be a dominant match and a comfortable win.
But Toronto FC have some reasons of their own to see this as an important game. The moribund results on the pitch over the last few seasons as well as the endless drama off the pitch during the Mo Johnston era have finally taken their toll on a once-rabid fan base. No matter what the official attendance statistics tell you, you can't ignore the quarter to half of the stadium that's now empty for Toronto home matches. And while that would be a celebrated accomplishment for many teams in the league, for Toronto it comes as a shock. Head coach Aron Winter was tasked with bringing stability back to the team, and he needs to do it quickly to bring belief back to the Toronto faithful. Just one win in their seven games this season and the expulsion of their superstar playmaker Dwayne De Rosario haven't helped, but a result on the road against Seattle might earn them a little more breathing space.
Tactically, Toronto have converted to a 4-2-3-1 with Alan Gordon leading the line up top as a target man. Maicon Santos, Jacob Peterson, and Javier Martina form a band of three attacking midfielders behind Gordon, with Santos acting as the playmaker in the middle. And Tony Tchani and Julian de Guzman sit behind those in a band of two more defensive midfielders. It's a formation that's become very popular worldwide as a consensus has built that a second striker is a luxury and that roster spot could be better used on a midfielder. The overload at midfield allows for extra possession and the loss of the forward is made up for with attack-minded midfielders in the band of three (who are often simply withdrawn forwards or wingers). Most recently we've seen it used by the Spanish national team and, perhaps not coincidentally with Winter at the helm, the Dutch national team.
It's also a formation that relies on the fullbacks for width, and while the Sounders have historically depended on the speedy and dangerous Zakuani to pin the opposing right back in his own end and shut down his offensive contributions, with Steve out Dan Gargan will be more free to provide that width along with Danleigh Borman on the other side.
If only Zakuani were the only loss, the Sounders might be more confident, but with the sudden news that O'Brian White is out indefinitely to deal with a blood clotting problem and Mauro Rosales is suffering from a hamstring issue, Seattle's attacking depth — which was touted at the beginning of the season — will be sorely tested. And now that both Zakuani and Nyassi are off the team for very different reasons, the speed-on-the-wings offensive strategy that carried Seattle through their first two seasons will likely have to be abandoned wholesale. If Sigi is desperate to maintain wing-speed, he may be able to cobble it together with Rosales and Mike Fucito, but I think that would be more trouble than it's worth. Instead, we should see a commitment to a new playing style that emphasizes slow build up through the midfield. One which might bring Alvaro Fernandez back into the limelight and rely heavily on Brad Evans' ability to play from box to box.
So tomorrow represents not only a collective cathartic outpouring of support for Steve and an important opportunity for a home win, but also a peek into what Sigi believes will be the team's offensive strategy for the rest of the season.
- Fernandez vs Gargan - Predicting any matchups for this game will be tough, given the question marks in the Seattle midfield. But I'm guessing that Rosales reprises his role on the right wing and Alvaro slots into the left wing. Although Sigi has never come out and said it, it seems clear that the knock on Fernandez and the reason he's been riding the bench even as a DP is that he doesn't provide as much defense as the coach wants. But the team is very familiar with playing with a left wing that isn't much of a defensive presence, as that was never Zakuani's game. So the switch from Steve to Alvaro may put less of a defensive burden on the rest of the team than a switch from, say, Evans to Alvaro or Friberg to Alvaro, which Sigi has seemed loathe to do. If so, it'll be his job to threaten Gargan enough to keep the fullback pinned back and to provide solid service from the wing, which he's always shown the ability to do. Also, Gargan can be deadly with his long-throwing ability, so anything Alvaro could do to make him think twice about pushing up into the offensive third for a throw in would be helpful.
- Osvaldo Alonso vs Maicon Santos - The trick with playing against a 4-2-3-1 is picking up the midfield runs. It will be imperative that the Seattle centerbacks have a constant awareness of where the runs are coming from and be willing to trade responsibility on marking Gordon to step forward. But the responsibility for shutting down those attacks rests primarily with Alonso. He's the ball-winner on the team and he will be tracking back and forth across the field as Toronto thrusts from different areas. But his primary interest will probably be Santos as the main distributor.
- Zakuani vs rehab - They say the first weeks are the most critical in coming back fully and quickly from injuries like these. Get better soon