SEATTLE - MARCH 17: David Estrada #16 (L) of the Seattle Sounders celebrates with Alvaro Fernandez #15 after scoring a goal against Toronto FC at CenturyLink Field on March 17, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Let it be known that despite much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments in Sounders-land after the epic flameout in Torreon on Wednesday, that for 3/4's of the tie our boys in, um, "cyan" were battling toe-to-toe with perhaps the best team in CONCACAF at the moment. You may say Monterrey are better, but that represents another side the Sounders have shown themselves capable of playing with.
In fact, coming out of the locker room for the final 45' it could've been said the Sounders were even in the driver's seat due to the peculiarities of the away-goals rule. What happened next was surely disappointing, but may only prove to obscure the important fact that this is a side committed to creative attacking play, and they were simply done in by what may be, for lack of a better word, a certain naivete against a far more pedigreed side.
Additionally disappointing is the fact that the subsequent match featured Toronto upsetting the Galaxy to book a place in the semifinals. If the Sounder's MLS experience has been a ride in a rocket, TFC's has been, well, a launch-pad explosion. In a League where mediocrity is sufficient, the Reds haven't even managed that, which does their quality Support no justice.
And so the MLS opener for both teams gave the home side a unique opportunity to quickly discard of the rotting, stinking corpse of their CCL run. While last night was certainly a lot of fun, I will need a TV viewing to properly break things down, so what follows are my reactions to watching the ROOT sports replay this evening.
Much of the first half was a demonstration of what Alvaro Fernandez is capable of. I think if it wasn't for the fact that David Estrada had a hat trick, the narrative of this match would've been Flaco's finest day in a Sounders shirt. Estrada's story is certainly a fantastic one, don't get me wrong. But...
Just minutes in we get a preview of things to come, when Flaco's delicious backheel sets up Estrada on the run, whose long-range effort is unfortunately well off-target.
Fredy Montero was not at his best last night, and the same could be said about Mauro Rosales. If Toronto's defensive efforts were built around shutting down these two, then it certainly showed. What this ended up doing was merely opening the door for Flaco and Estrada to step through, which they did with aplomb.
There is a yin and yang when it comes to Fredy. Early on he skied a low-percentage, somewhat off balance shot when a tap into the danger area with an onrushing Estrada may have been the better choice. But we need that kind of audacity out of him, as it is a part of what makes him so brilliant.
The roots of our first goal came just a minute or so before it was scored, when Flaco tried a double move just left of the box but it was tackled out for a corner.
The next time down, the ball once again found Flaco in a very similar position, one on one with a defender, and he pulls off a delicious double move featuring a wonderful flick-to-oneself turn. At this point many players would probably choose to bang in an aerial cross across the goal mouth, but Flaco played what was essentially a 60-40 pass into the danger area with an onrushing Estrada (sound familiar?). Estrada doesn't win the initial ball (it would go down as an unsuccessful pass, actually) but the pass puts the defender in an uncomfortable spot. This helps Estrada ultimately win the ball and elude Milos Kocic just enough to eventually clean up his own mess.
TFC, meanwhile, had their chances, and managed to get their heads on some crosses and set pieces in dangerous areas for much of the night. It became popular - if not a little unfair - to lambast our defense after Wednesday's result, but while I think the ground game is solid, I do have some questions about our aerial defense after last night's showing.
Ross Fletcher made much of TFC's hybrid 3/4/5-man defense, which isn't particularly unusual if you follow top-flight European tactics. The key to this is Torsten Frings, who was injured midway through the first half tackling Estrada from behind after a wonderful pass from Montero - who even on an unremarkable night by his standards still makes great plays. The worst phrase in soccer is "he got the ball" which even Kasey Keller fell victim to.
Tackles from behind like Fring's are bookable offenses and certain penalties when they occur in the box. In that regard, some sense of justice prevailed when he was forced out and, with it, much of Toronto's defensive scheme. From then on out they just looked like a defense playing a naively high line, rather than a defense playing a risky, if purposeful, high line.
Later, Flaco - having an absolute blinder - sent Estrada through one-one one with Kocic. It was the assist that wasn't, but another moment of foreshadowing. But this time we would have to wait a little longer to see where it was going.
It's worth wondering how much the match changes if Ryan Johnson's first-half header past a seemingly out-of-position Michael Gspurning and off the underside of the bar goes in. As I mentioned, Toronto created opportunities in the first half. Two later first half chances were both squelched by Jhon Kennedy Hurtado: the first a blocked shot after some fumbling defense by Patrick Ianni, the second one a picture-perfect tackle.
In the midst if this the Sounders certainly kept up their attack. Flaco absolutely skinned Richard Eckersley , who responded by shoving him down. This, it would turn out - to the surprise of many - does apparently not constitute a foul, at least according to Ricardo Salazar and his assistants. We also got to see more of the yin and yang of Montero; but what we weren't seeing much of was a meaningful contribution from Rosales. This, however, should alarm no-one in the long term. The captain will have plenty of opportunites to exploit teams less focused on stopping him this year.
Early in the second half we got to see that Flaco through-ball to Estrada thing come to fruition. Sure, Flaco's through-ball was perfect, sure Estrada timed his run and was cool as a cucumber on that finish; but what about the heel flick from Marc Burch to start that off?!
On the subject of Burch, for a man who has been served up as the goat for Toronto's lone goal it strikes me that he did absolutely nothing wrong on the play. If anything, Ryan Johnson was likely motivated to shoot because he saw Gspurning leave his far post wide open - apparently not trusting Burch to take away the near post. At any rate, it took a GOTW-calibre strike to score. When that happens, you just shake your head and move on...
However, if you want to respond to conceding a goal and losing your 2-goal cushion, one reliable method is to go out and quickly score one yourself. I'm not going to sit here and break down the brilliance of the Sounders third goal, brought to you once again by the Flaco and Estrada show, just go watch the highlight clip a few times and I'll wait here for you to come back. If you don't understand what "the Beautiful Game" means after watching it, I can't help you.
And that was basically it. Toronto's momentarily full sails were suddenly without wind, and it was left for the Sounders to add to their total. Yes, Toronto had some chances, but the Sounders could've easily added a few more tallies themselves, particularly when Sivebaek sent a cross in that Roger Levesque really ought to have finished. However it's worth noting that it was his first touch after a great through-ball by Osvaldo Alonso - who is/was so typically awesome it barely warrants mentioning any more.
Christian Sivebaek seemed best served playing the ball on one or two touches. While he did have that assist that wasn't, as well as a nice exchange with Adam Johansson that lead to a well-played cross from the right back, he seemed dead-set and determined to dribble the ball until he lost it. In all it was an underwhelming shift from the winger, who was given a good chunk of time to showcase his talents.
As the game wore down to its conclusion, Roasles was whumped by Aaron Maund (Frings' replacement) on a clumsy bit of defending that could've easily resulted in a booking and PK. As it was, Maund would still get into Salazar's book when he decided to rashly hatchet down Alonso in the last moments.
In a general tactical sense, It is worth noting that for much of the night, Estrada looked to be almost a left-winger. This would fit into the Sounders overall asymmetric approach, with Rosales as more of a winger on the right with the more attacking Johansson, and the more "left mid" Flaco on the left flank with the more conservative Burch. Flaco and Rosales did switch sides some - as the natural run of play allows for - and Rosales switched sides with Sivebaek shortly after the Dane came on for Flaco.
But last night was certainly the Estrada and Flaco show, and a nice testament to the high quality of this team that not even a hellish 45 minutes in Torreon can take away.