Toronto started the match fairly well – given the short rest and an in-form and buoyed opponent, but a defensive blunder in the 16th minute would prove costly.
Before digging into the details, a cursory glance at the actual goal in real time:
Osvaldo Alonso picks up the ball near the centre-circle and plays up to Obafemi Martins. Martins then plays a one-two with Eddie Johnson to move past Matias Laba, who slips, allowing Martins the freedom to surge down the centre-left channel.
Lamar Neagle and Mauro Rosales start curling runs to the right – with Neagle slotting himself goal-side of Ashtone Morgan and Rosales abruptly turning back towards the left in between Doneil Henry and Steven Caldwell.
Martins plays out wide to Brad Evans, who then checks back onto his right-foot and lifts his head; Neagle has drifted offside, while Johnson trudges past a static Reggie Lambe leaving three players for Henry & Morgan to mark – an impossible task.
A perfectly timed run from Johnson and a great ball to the back-post is headed back across the goalmouth where a helpless Joe Bendik can do nothing to prevent a patient finish from Rosales.
Toronto, who had only given up two goals in their last four matches, were always likely to be troubled by the Seattle attack.
The key difference between this match and those last four was primarily a two-striker system – Yes, New York plays with two, but Thierry Henry is hardly a test-the-line forward, especially when he isn’t getting the ball regularly and drops back.
Against Chivas, ‘Cubo’ Torres was the solitary front-man – and the early red card limited the potential of wide attackers and Carlos Alvarez to get forward centrally; against Columbus, Jairo Arrieta was tasked with that role – with Dominic Oduro adding thrust from wide and Federico Higuain trying to play in the space behind the Costa Rican forward; and in New England it was largely Dimitry Imbongo who dueled with the TFC centre-backs, leaving Diego Fagundez and Saer Sene to attack from the flanks, while Lee Nguyen and later Kelyn Rowe pushed through the middle.
Seattle poses a much more complex threat, namely: movement.
Take Martins and Johnson, their constant swapping of sides makes it near impossible to say which is on the left and which on the right.
With only one forward, the centre-backs are free to have one marker, who covers the man, and one stopper, who steps up to any trouble as it forms.
But with two, both are occupied and the space in front can open up (without a spare defender to step into it).
Added to that is that either Johnson or Martins will often drop off the back-line, checking back to collect the ball or get involved in the build up, which either drags the centre-backs out – opening up space behind, or at least catches them static when the play turns up-field.
Then Seattle also has the duel threats of Rosales and Neagle who look to play from outside in, cutting towards goal from wide position, and they have no shame in completely abandoning a formational role – and the freedom to do so, when the game calls for it.
When last the question of ‘What Just Happened?’ was asked, the answer involved the opponent isolating Toronto’s defensive left as the weak point with Columbus either double-teaming down that side, or looking to open up space for the speedy Oduro to exploit – it worked.
Seattle would employ that same tactic.
As early as the third minute, a confluence of factors – Johnson drifting out wide, Rosales cutting in, and the overlap of Deandre Yedlin – would test that flank and Toronto responded well.
Here Morgan has stepped out to Johnson, while both Bobby Convey – thankfully tracking back - and Laba are in position to stifle the chance. Seattle would cycle the ball before a Rosales pass is cut out by Morgan and the plays withers on the vine.
Undeterred, Seattle would again look to exploit that side.
Five minutes later, both Neagle and Rosales – nominally on opposite flanks - are within feet of each other, double teaming Morgan, but both Laba (who comes storming in) and Convey are in position to cover.
Though Seattle plays out of that tight spot, Henry cuts out a ball at the near-post and the threat is ended.
Feeling sufficient stymied, Seattle adjusts.
The play begins with Marcus Hahnemann collecting a long TFC punt; Seattle moves the ball around the back – more-or-less, before Leo Gonzalez checks in to Alonso near the circle.
When he plays up to Martins, Toronto is in solid shape, relatively compact – though clearly not enough, with nine men behind the ball, ready to defend.
But then, Laba, who stepped to confront the Nigerian, slips, opening up a pocket of space in front of the back-four.
Even without Laba in position, Toronto is still looking alright.
Henry is on Rosales, Morgan on Neagle, Caldwell readying to step up to Martins, and Lambe is in the right spot to track Johnson’s run – of note, though not integral to the play, is how wide open Yedlin is further to the right.
Part of the reason Yedlin is so free is that Lambe, who would normally be tasked with marking the opposition full-back, has compensated for the slip from Laba by wisely drifting inward.
Then it all starts to unravel, and quick.
Whether caught in two minds, ball watching, or just unaware, Lambe leaves Johnson to run free, handing him off to Morgan, who is still occupied with Neagle.
Johnson calls for the ball – raising his arm to get Evans’ attention.
It is worth pointing out that in this impending attack the two forwards, Martins and Johnson have ended up making the outside runs – with Martins even starting out the play after dropping very deep – while Neagle and Rosales, the wide midfielders, have ended up as the central runners, each off the back shoulder (ball-wise) of the centre-backs.
It is a perfectly timed run from Johnson - note Laba just coming back into the picture.
While Johnson’s run may have been perfection, it doesn’t necessarily account for why both Henry and Caldwell were frozen, failing to respond to the header across that led to the goal.
Defenders should always play to the whistle, even if riddled by thoughts of a possible offside.
By looking at the play from a different angle, one possible reason comes to light.
As Morgan, who was in line with the offside trap, switches concern from Neagle to Johnson, he takes a step back (his raised right foot is a back-pedal), just as Caldwell & Henry shift up towards the ball, putting them off-balance and thinking they had caught Johnson offside.
Regardless of why, both centre-backs freeze and three Sounders are left to collapse on the cushioned header.
Morgan recovers to the line, hopeful of making another goal-line clearance and Bendik does his best to stay big, but Rosales, savvy veteran that he is, simply out waits the keeper and slots under him to finish.
Despite the good results of late, Toronto’s defensive issues remain.
Their success had come from staying compact, this game was already far too stretched; a simple slip from Laba exposed the middle of the pitch, the confusion caused by Seattle’s inverted attack, Lambe’s failure to track Johnson, the Sounders doubling up on Morgan, a perfectly timed run, and a delayed reaction from the stagnant centre-backs conspired to create this goal.
Much of TFC’s early season stability came as the result of playing two holding midfielders – a Jeremy Hall-Laba combination of late. That solidity was conceded in hope of spurring more attack, with Jonathan Osorio paired in the middle.
Regardless of formation or lineup, there will always be vulnerability. By addressing one problem – say a lack of creativity in the middle that has stifled the ability to score goals – another – such as a softer middle of the park with only one defensive midfielder – will arise. That is the give and take of the game.
Should Ryan Nelsen have foreseen a buoyant attacking opponent – spirits engorged on the Dempsey-delirium - and perhaps reinstated the two-man shield? Should Osorio perhaps have been required to be more conservative out of the gates, at least until equilibrium had been reached? Should Laba have worn different boots? Questions can be asked, but answers are often much more difficult to come by. And sometimes the opposition just plain beats you, capitalizing on the smallest of errors to turn the margins in their favour.
Seattle would add a second before the half was done, Neagle blowing past Richard Eckersley and cutting back a ball to the near-post which Henry was unfortunate to turn into his own goal with a stumbled back-heel.
Toronto, to their credit, would spark to life in the second half, scoring one within a minute of the restart and pressuring for an equalizer, but the damage was already done, by a few sloppy moments precipitated by the most innocent of slips.