I've decided that Toronto is our evil twin from the East. While Seattle has set the standard of making the playoffs in every year of their existence, Toronto has set their own standard of being the only MLS team to never make the playoffs. After Seattle hosted the MLS Cup Final in 2009 — by all accounts a pleasant and well-attended affair, the cost of which was included in Sounders' fans season ticket packages — the next season Toronto hosted it and their fans proceeded to end neutral site hosting in MLS by embarrassing the league with a halftime walkout over the cost of the game being included in their season ticket packages.
And after Toronto's Dwayne De Rosario's contentious but ultimately confusing "check-writing" celebration — what's he writing this check for? Is he buying groceries? Who still writes checks anyway? — after which he was sent to exile in D.C. United (with a brief layover in New York), it was left to Seattle to improve the formula, with Eddie Johnson's much clearer "Pay Me" celebration, after which... he was sent to exile in DC.
|Michael Bradley||Arguably the best player on the US national team is an easy pick here. Tasked with holding the midfield|
|Jermaine Defoe||A forward with a shot at making the England World Cup squad should be best in the league|
|Dwayne De Rosario||The 35-year-old has to have enough in the tank to take attention away from Defoe|
And when Seattle shocked the league by signing the unsignable international US attacking midfielder Clint Dempsey, it was left to Toronto to sign his arch-nemesis: unsignable international US defending midfielder Michael Bradley.
But Bradley is only part of the great Northern Rebuild. The other major piece is rather talented forward Jermaine Defoe, who's just a finished pretty productive five years at Premier League side Tottenham. And they added a third DP in the offseason: Brazilian striker Gilberto. Oh, and for good measure they added Brazilian national team keeper Julio Cesar on loan from QPR.
Those additions have certainly changed perceptions. From an abject team that hasn't finished higher than 8th in the East in three years, they're now almost universally predicted to make the playoffs. Certainly they should have one of the best forward pairs in the league if everyone stays healthy. And a midfield anchored by Bradley alongside the now venerable De Rosario should be at least above average.
The question comes down to the defense, which last season surrendered 47 goals. The only team to make the playoffs in 2013 giving up more than 45 runs was Montreal, who epically flamed out in the first round. So if they're going to make their first playoff appearance, they almost certainly need to improve defensively, no matter what Defoe is doing up front. On the flanks, they've brought in Justin Morrow from San Jose to play on the left and veteran Bradley Orr on loan from Blackpool to play on the right. But in the middle, they're sending out the same unit as last season — Homegrown Player Doneil Henry and his Scottish partner Steven Caldwell.
With so many new faces, it's hard to say how Toronto will play. In preseason they played a standard 4-4-2, with a Bradley/Jonathan Osorio pair in the middle. Gilberto has reportedly not traveled, which will be something of a break for Seattle. Waking the Red suggest Defoe's replacement partner will be Andrew Wiedeman, which makes sense. Toronto coach Ryan Nelsen has hinted that Defoe and Bradley may not travel due to Seattle's terrible, terrible turf (a message delivered from the turf field his team was practicing on), but that's just mind games. I expect both to play.
If Seattle plays a 4-2-3-1 with Dempsey withdrawn as expected, that should mean they outnumber Toronto in the midfield. That plays straight into the Reds' newfound strength Bradley, but Osorio is much more average and even Bradley can't mark three players by himself. Dempsey, Brad Evans, and Osvaldo Alonso should be able to reliably hold possession and build through the middle against the two man central midfield, especially if the rain holds off until later in the afternoon. And any collapsing in by the Toronto wide midfielders to help should open up the flanks for attacks by both of Seattle's roving fullbacks (assuming Dylan Remick once again starts ahead of the injured Leo Gonzalez). And Obafemi Martins and Dempsey making runs at once of the weaker central defensive pairs in the league is a tantalizing prospect.
In the other direction, Defoe will obviously be the focus. Chad Marshall shouldn't have any problem controlling Wiedeman, Toronto's nominal big man forward. But corralling Defoe will have to be a team effort. Letting him go one on one with Djimi Traore is probably a bad idea. That means a lot of help from Alonso and occasionally from the fullbacks.
Despite Toronto's significant talent upgrades, this is a game I feel good about. It's easy to get distracted by the shiny jewels, but they'll still be fielding a lot of the team that only won 6 games last season. If Seattle can control Defoe and bypass Bradley in the midfield, they should be heavily favored at every other position on the field.