With just a single match played so far this season and Seattle having undergone so many changes in the off-season, it is difficult to be definitive concerning how they will approach the match; that said, there was a lot to be gleaned from Saturday against Kansas City.
Generally speaking, the underwhelming production from Clint Dempsey since he joined the club last August – just one goal in nine appearances in 2013, though he did (generously) pick up an assist on Chad Barrett’s goal last Saturday - has been a simmering undercurrent throughout the off-season.
Just how to use Dempsey has thus far proved a conundrum to Coach Sigi Schmid; is he best utilized as a striker; an attacking midfielder; or maybe a withdrawn forward?
The particulars of why Dempsey has been so dangerous throughout his career is the freedom and ability to roam, treading between those lines, finding pockets of space and popping up with devastating consequence.
Perhaps that is why he looked out of sorts in 2013 – joining a club midseason is never easy – and his style requires a certain understanding amongst himself and his teammates in order to make the most of that ability to find space.
His loan to Fulham was less-than-ideal, forcing him to miss out on Seattle’s preparations for 2014, but so far, granted a very small sample size, he has already looked to be more integrated into the side.
Against KC in his half-hour, there was evidence of a burgeoning partnership with Obafemi Martins that could prove to be one of the best tandems in the league (once they figure each other out). Should the duo find themselves paired again on Saturday, watch for Martins to push the line, while Dempsey drops into the midfield to factor into the build-up and thrust into the gaps created by his teammate.
It is worth noting that Dempsey made his debut last August against Toronto FC and there would be a neat symmetry were he to finally find his feet against them, book-ending a rather forgettable six months.
Dempsey dropping back into the midfield can prove especially challenging in transition, when Osvaldo Alonso, as he often does, forces a turnover and springs an attack.
That is exactly how Seattle found the breakthrough against Sporting:
Alonso, ball-hound that he is, pounces on an errant pass, charges up-field before finding Dempsey in a pocket of space, he then pushes the ball out wide to debutant homegrown signing, Sean Okoli, who hits in a tempting cross for the deep run from Dempsey.
Dempsey’s header could only find the bar, but the ball would eventually fall to Barrett for the 94th minute winner.
That attack provided a good example of another facet of Seattle’s attack – their use of wide areas.
With Mauro Rosales and Eddie Johnson gone, the risk of the long cross-field ball for a header is less-prevalent, but Marco Pappa can turn a trick or two to make space and hit a cross, while Lamar Neagle operated as an inverted winger, slashing in-field to cause additional stress on the opponent’s back-line; never mind the rampant attack-minded play of DeAndre Yedlin down the right.
Neither of TFC’s projected wide midfielders (Jackson and Alvaro Rey) are particularly defensive-minded, meaning the full-backs and midfield will have to be extra aware of getting caught out of position.
Toronto will have to track those runners carefully and stay organized to manage the threat, while the clash of US National teammates Dempsey and Michael Bradley has many salivating at the prospects of TFC’s season opener – not something that has often occurred in their history.
TFC keeper, Julio Cesar, will have to be sharp, as Neagle, Pappa, and Dempsey all fancy themselves from range and will not be afraid of having a crack from thirty-plus yards, should the opportunity present itself.
Here’s a deflected drive from Pappa that had to be closely watched by Eric Kronberg:
While Neagle had at least two attempts from range last weekend – one and two.
A special note on the homegrown Okoli, who was very impressive in his brief cameo, bringing life to the Seattle attack and eventually hitting the cross that led to the goal – it is unlikely that he would start, but expect another substitute’s appearance to push the play against what will undoubtedly be tired TFC legs towards the end of the second half.
Waking the Red takes no pleasure in this, but it must be said that Stefan Frei looked a little shaky in his Seattle debut.
His first save for his new club was a rasping drive from Graham Zusi that Frei failed to hold properly, leading to a good follow up chance for Dom Dwyer:
While his flub of this late cross nearly proved disastrous, but Dwyer’s shot deflected wide:
Toronto fans will well remember the difficulties Frei had on occasion – think Champions League against LA at the SkyDome – and the lack of playing time the past two seasons has left a little to be desired in the sharpness category.
TFC should definitely test him and follow in shots whenever possible.
Conveniently for Seattle, that liability is marginalized by having one of the best aerial defenders in the league, Chad Marshall. Picking spots to get crosses by the dominant centre-back, whose positioning in such circumstances is second to none, will be tricky.
Injuries and concussion concerns have limited his effectiveness the past few season and there have been some hushed whispers that he may be currently carrying a slight knock – he looked very susceptible to a bit of shrewd movement, twice caught flat-footed stepping into the midfield.
On this play Zusi and Dwyer maneuvered around him as though he were a pylon (with the added bonus of a horror-shank from Jacob Peterson):
And that same step up – to CJ Sapong this time - dragged him out of position leaving a ton of space and clear corridor that was wasted by KC, as Dwyer skewed his shot wide, here.
There will be moments of miscommunication between a central defensive pairing that are still getting to know each other, even two as experienced as Marshall and Djimi Traore, especially if one throws a new keeper into the mix as well.
Jermain Defoe could have a field day darting between the two.
With so many attack-minded players on the field, Seattle can get caught cheating forward a little - that Zusi shot above was the result of Yedlin holding onto the ball for a little too long and losing out under pressure from Peterson and Benny Feilhaber. The young full-back duo should definitely be pressured when they’re on the ball and isolated.
Points of Interest
Speaking of the big time treatment, when was the last time Toronto FC featured on a national broadcast in the US?
The two last met on August 10th of last season, with Seattle walking away from BMO Field 1-2 victors thanks to a pair of first-half goals, first from Mauro Rosales and then a deft Doneil Henry back-heeled own-goal. Jonathan Osorio would grab one back inside a minute after the restart, but another was not forthcoming.
Seattle have dominated Toronto in the all-time series, winning six of eight matches, with one draw – the lone TFC win came in 2010 in Toronto, 2-0 on goals from Dwayne De Rosario and O’Brian White (who would go on to play for the Sounders, albeit briefly).
A scoreless draw in 2009 was Toronto’s best away result in the series, but in the three road matches since the Sounders have scored three goals in each, winning 3-2, 3-0, and 3-1 respectively.
Seattle have a five-game winning streak against Toronto in progress.
Toronto fans will no doubt partake of this match with mixture of anticipation and fear. With all the extra attention of Tim Leiweke-fueled-gravitas, comes additional expectations and it will likely take a few months before the true quality of this newly-assembled unit comes to bear.
An opening match in Seattle does carry negative connotations for TFC. An unsettling portent of doom is that the Torsten Frings injury that derailed the 2012 season took place on the pitch in Seattle – was going to post the video, but no one needs to see that again.
Fingers crossed for a safe and successful, if possibly unfulfilling, start to 2014.