It's tempting to think that today's match versus Toronto FC is one that the Seattle Sounders should win. By most measures, Toronto is one of if not the worst teams in the league. They have the worst goal differential at -10, have allowed the most goals, have the second worst shot differential per 90, and their 5th-worst point total is inflated by the fact that they're tied for the second-most games played this season (along with the Sounders). Add that it'll be their third game in 7 days after playing a midweek match versus New England. And even the fact that it's a home game isn't much of a concern.
The home advantage that Toronto has traditionally enjoyed with their beautiful stadium and passionate fanbase has been worn away by seasons of mediocrity and frustration. You'll see plenty of empty seats on the broadcast today no matter the announced attendance. The transition from the Mo Johnston era to Aron Winter was supposed to re-ignite the franchise but thus far the results have been similar. It's only the fact that Winter is in the first season of a long contract that keeps him from being on the proverbial hot seat and if Toronto regresses much more, even his job may not be safe. We still calculate the Reds as having the hardest remaining schedule in MLS.
But for all that, you have to remember that there are no easy games in this league. High league parity means it's very rare for one team to completely dominate another and every team is a bounce or two away from a victory — a fact well understood by LA Galaxy fans who watched their team hit shot after shot off the post last weekend against this same Toronto team and then had to settle for a draw after Alan Gordon scored in the last moments of injury time. And the only time the Sounders have won by more than a single goal in 16 tries this season was against this same Toronto team in April, so easy victories haven't been on the menu thus far.
Tactically, the recent emergence of Gordon as a legitimate target man and the concurrent emergence of Joel Plata as a speedy threat on the left flank have clarified things offensively for the Reds and relieved some of the pressure put on Maicon Santos and Julian de Guzman since the loss of Dwayne de Rosario to the New York Red Bulls. Toronto's scored 2 goals three times in the eight matches since their previous matchup with Seattle, which may not seem particularly impressive until you notice that it's the same number of times the Sounders have scored 2 goals since that match. Now Toronto can focus on their defensive problems. The backline has been unimpressive all season, which is a particular problem for a team trying to play a 4-2-3-1. The presence of two defensive midfielders should theoretically shore up any defensive issues, but thus far this season the Toronto defensive 6 has been a rotating cast of characters who haven't been able to solidify in the new system. This week expect familiar face Nathan Sturgis to be deputized into a holding midfield role alongside de Guzman, who's just returned from Gold Cup duty thanks to the disappointing ejection of Canada from the group stage.
For the Sounders, the June of Climbing the Standings hasn't really materialized. A soft schedule was supposed to provide an opportunity for the Sounders to make some hay before teams start taking advantage of the games in hand they have on the frontloaded Seattle schedule. But a scoreless draw in Chicago and a late home draw to Vancouver (admittedly on one of the most impressive goals of the season, if not the history of MLS) have begun to squander that opportunity. This Toronto game thus takes on more importance than it otherwise would. A loss would essentially put to bed any possibility of a big June and would return our focus to a playoff wildcard spot. A win would start the redemption of the month and could set the stage for a result in next Thursday's home match with New York.
The Seattle roster remains unpredictable. With the generally unproductive play of Nate Jaqua over 90 minutes Sigi seems to have settled on the small/small pairing up top with Mike Fucito and Fredy Montero. Lamar Neagle's substitute heroics earlier in the season haven't really translated into sustained danger over 90 minutes and Alvaro Fernandez may be recovered enough from his hamstring to once again take over the left wing. On the other hand, if Alvaro re-injures his hamstring early in the game and has to be substituted — as happened last time he tried to play as well as to Mauro Rosales earlier in the season (and Brad Evans and Fucito previously) — Sigi may throttle someone on the sideline. So patience is probably in order there. Evans and Rosales are likely to swap the central mid (with Rosales as a sort of CAM) and the right wing as they have the last couple of games.
- Gordon vs Jeff Parke - Who's in the centerback rotation? On long rest it seems that Parke and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado are consistently getting the nod, with Parke usually marking on the taller opponents. Gordon has been the most consistent scoring threat for Toronto over the last couple of weeks and his two goals against LA were both top-notch target man plays. Seattle have shown themselves susceptible to big men both in the run of play and on set pieces (see: Hassli, Agudelo, Danso) and Parke will need to shut Gordon down.
- Plata vs James Riley - Riley's been quietly solid recently and the Sounders haven't seen much danger coming down their right flank. In part that may be the introduction of Tyson Wahl on the left flank, who's the better ball distributor but has shown some ability to get beaten, which may encourage teams to focus their attacks on the right. Riley will be tested by Plata who has both pace and the ability to cut inside to augment the attack centrally.
- Montero vs Stefan Frei - Frei has been the star of the Toronto defense. It's always a bad sign when your goalkeeper is your best defender, but it means it will probably take a quality shot to get one by the beleaguered Swiss keeper. Montero has the ability to generate quality shots, but hasn't found the space or the service to generate enough of them. The Seattle DP forward hasn't scored since the first week of May and a short stint on the bench has yet to ignite whatever fire it was intended to ignite.