This will be Toronto FC’s first visit to CenturyLink Field with a rave green banner hanging from the rafters above the west stands. It will be the first time they face the Seattle Sounders with a star above their crest. Everywhere TFC looks, there will be reminders about December 10, 2016. It is perfect theater for ESPN. They moved the game to noon to try to garner a few more eyeballs for a match between two of the best teams in MLS.
Both sides are different now. Seattle’s starting lineup will have three or more changes from the Cup-winning XI. Toronto brought in the league leader in assists. Seattle has a fully operational Clint Dempsey.
2017 is a new year, but both teams are expected to be playing well into the fall.
Mitchell from Waking the Red answers Three Questions.
SaH: What's changed for the Reds since MLS Cup?
WtR: Considering Toronto FC did make the MLS Cup final last year, they haven't changed a lot. The team still lines up in a 3-5-2 formation and the vast majority of the starting lineup is the exact same. The biggest difference has been the acquisition of Victor Vazquez, an attacking midfielder who plays behind Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. Toronto FC used TAM money to acquire the veteran midfielder from Cruz Azul, with the main part of his experience with Brugge in the Belgian league. He gives Toronto yet another attacking weapon and likely makes them even more dangerous going forward than last season. Vazquez is currently leading the league in assists, and if he can keep up this form will certainly be in the conversation for MLS Newcomer of the Year (more on him later). Long-term injuries to both Clint Irwin and Drew Moor have also created openings for Alex Bono and Raheem Edwards. Edwards is a 21-year-old Canadian who is quickly making a name for himself for his play at left fullback. He is a dynamic player down the wing who can beat defenders one-on-one and whip in dangerous crosses. Bono has been a more than capable stand-in for Irwin, to the point where Toronto might have a goalie controversy on their hands in the near future.
SaH: Is this a vengeance game? An opportunity to prove that TFC is and was the better side?
WtR: The media will certainly look at it that way, but it is unlikely the players are going to feel that way. Like any other team in the league, beating the defending MLS Cup champions in their own building would be a nice confidence boost. However, no regular season is ever going to be anywhere close to an MLS Cup final. If there is ever going to be revenge for that night it would have to come in another MLS Cup or a CONCACAF Champions League game or something of that magnitude. At most, they will see it as a chance to prove the difference that a player like Vazquez could have made in last year's final. Honestly, though I don't even think this game is the biggest of Toronto FC's week. Their 2-1 win against Orlando City SC on Wednesday came against the team leading their conference to finish off a perfect three-game homestand. Toronto FC played their preferred eleven in that match, likely highlighting which one they think is more important too.
SaH: How did Vazquez become the third most important person on the team?
WtR: Toronto FC GM Tim Bezbatchenko was able to go out this summer and acquire the piece the team was missing in the form of Vazquez. The MLS Cup final, as well as several other games throughout the season, saw TFC struggle to break down teams who played behind the ball. Vazquez is the type of creative attacking midfielder that can pick out passes that unlock those sort of backlines and create more chances for players like Giovinco and Altidore even when they are being man marked by defenders. Toronto already has the deadliest attacking duo in the league, it is just about getting them the ball in the right areas. He has also helped the team improve during dead ball situations, particularly corner kicks. Vazquez has been significantly more accurate with his corners than Giovinco, who used to take them, and Toronto has been reaping the rewards as a result. Finally, he does all of this consistently, he hasn't had a bad game since gaining fitness. All of these attributes have combined to make him the club's top performer so far this season.
Projected 11: Bono; Zavaleta, Hagglund, Mavinga; Edwards, Bradley, Osorio, Vazquez, Delgado; Giovinco, Altidore
Injuries: Clint Irwin, Jason Hernandez, Drew Moor, Ashtone Morgan
Despite fixture congestion, Greg Vanney has done a pretty good job of managing player minutes so far this season. With that in mind, I can't think of many changes that will be made to Toronto's regular starting XI this weekend. It is possible, as I projected, that they rest a couple of their veteran players like Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour. Any other changes to the starting eleven are likely made for tactical reasons and not player fatigue.
WtR: There are a couple of new faces in the Seattle lineup since MLS Cup. Which ones should Toronto FC fans know about?
SaH: Let's start with Clint Dempsey. Yes, he was on the roster, but had missed several months with a heart issue. He is now back, completely, fully. Clint looks like the Clint of old — a bit cranky, assertive, dominant, hungry. It's not just his impressive performance for the National Team. Dempsey is making 75 yard runs from defense to attack, assisting, and still scoring. TFC didn't have to deal with defending both Dempsey and Lodeiro. Now they will.
There are three other major additions. Gustav Svensson was canned by a team in China so he's a low cap hit, no risk signing in Seattle where his friend Erik Friberg (back in Sweden after the Cup). Instead of being the 3rd CDM he is now a regular starter on the backline. Toronto will see him as the left centerback in his first start there. He's been the RB and RCB so far this year. Svensson is a great passer, good tackler, but can lose his mark on crosses.
From within the league the Sounders added Will Bruin and Harry Shipp. Both could start if Jordan Morris doesn't play. Bruin will start if Morris is healthy enough to play. Bruin is that big body with three quick steps. He works well centrally but without the defensive effort that Valdez gave in last year's MLS Cup victory. Will scores a lot more goals with 3 in 231 minutes as a Sounders versus 1 in 1313 regular season minutes for Nelson Haedo Valdez.
Harry Shipp looks a lot more like the inspiring youngster with Chicago then the dud in Montreal. He is a possession first narrow attacking mid who added two talents to his repertoire as a Sounder — penetrating off ball runs and competent enough defense to play as a CDM. Play can get rather narrow when the attacking midfield band of Shipp-Dempsey-Lodeiro are on the pitch together.
WtR: How important is this game to Seattle, seeing as they have had such a slow start? Is this game, and all the MLS Cup memories it will bring, a potential rallying point?
SaH: Records are funny things. They mean everything in sports, but at certain points in the season they are meaningless. One of those points is when a team plays an inordinate amount of road games. Seattle started the season with five of seven on the road, which isn't as bad as what TFC's done in the past, but still impacts the record. Sounders did well on the road, earning five points in five played and are one of six teams with a positive road goal differential. By Sagarin, WhoScored, 538 and American Soccer Analysis this is still a good, and maybe great team.
Saturday's match will be a little more meaningful than a normal game. Both teams have MLS Cup memories to inspire them. Both have new talents to demonstrate how things could have been different. Seattle's fans get another strong reminder that they wear a star. The crowd should be as loud as ever.
WtR: Considering how good Seattle's offence especially has been this season at generating chances, do you think it's only a matter of time before they start moving up the standings?
SaH: I linked some of the material earlier, but the advanced metrics all love the 2017 Sounders. This is also true for the standard goals scored per match, where the Seattle Sounders are tied with NYCFC for 4th in the league. TFC is in 5th by that metric. Not only is Seattle's offense fine right now, it will be getting better when/if Jordan Morris can play a match on a healthy ankle again and/or Morris/Dempsey/Lodeiro finish at their expected rate.
Projected Lineup (4-2-3-1): Stefan Frei; Joevin Jones, Gustav Svensson, Roman Torres, Jordy Delem; Osvaldo Alonso, Cristian Roldan; Jordan Morris, Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro; Will Bruin
Morris has been playing on a bum ankle for a month. They are quite cautious with him in practices, so maybe he does not start. Brad Evans could surprise and appear in the 18. Oniel Fisher and Chad Marshall are unlikely to play this week.