And so it begins.
After a dramatic off-season of heavy roster turnover, high-profile signings, and under the cloud of the future status of BMO Field, Toronto FC gets the 2014 MLS season under way on Saturday in Seattle.
All the hype can now be set aside, as matches, not talk, will determine the validity of the prognostications that this will finally be the year that TFC reaches the Promised Land of the playoffs.
Toronto’s preseason was underwhelming and incomplete – with several players, notably Jermain Defoe not appearing at all and Gilberto making just one brief cameo – and the club limps into their initial match with fitness concerns in tow, leaving numerous questions to linger: Will the various acquisitions congeal into a cohesive side in time? Just how will Ryan Nelsen deploy his charges? And so on, and so forth.
The schedule-makers have not been kind - there are few more daunting tasks than playing the Sounders in Seattle (especially for Toronto) – and the first two months of the season will see TFC play just six matches, four of them on the road, with the opener in Seattle followed by trips to Salt Lake, Columbus, and Dallas.
With the 2014 World Cup taking place midstream, the MLS schedule is heavily weighted towards the final four months (23 of TFC’s 34 matches back-logged to the last 17 weeks of the season) – results from July through October will be crucial to success, so perhaps a slow start would not spell doom, but will the energy and optimism of an attention-grabbing off-season evaporate before the club finds its rhythm.
Such prescriptions, however, must wait.
For Saturday what is relevant is the opponent and how things will play out on the pitch; in that spirit, a closer look at the Seattle Sounders is in order.
Seattle, like much of the league, underwent extensive renovations in the off-season.
Gone are the likes of goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, defenders Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Patrick Ianni, and Marc Burch, midfielders Mauro Rosales, Adam Moffat, and Shalrie Joseph, as well as forwards Eddie Johnson and Steve Zakuani – while Fredy Montero was officially transferred to Sporting Lisbon.
Their replacements include a few faces familiar to folks in Toronto – both Stefan Frei and Chad Barrett, former Reds, number amongst their off-season acquisitions, while Columbus stalwart centre-back, Chad Marshall rejoins Sigi Schmid – the duo took the Crew to an MLS Cup Championship in 2008 – via trade, as did former Dallas, New York, etc. forward Kenny Cooper, and former Chicago defender, Jalil Anibaba; another former Fire player, midfielder Marco Pappa, joined via the league’s allocation process upon returning to MLS after an ill-fated European adventure in Holland.
That said, most of the main protagonists (antagonists?) remain.
Their projected starting eleven for Saturday’s match is as follows: Stefan Frei in goal; from right to left, DeAndre Yedlin, Chad Marshall, Djimi Traore, and Dylan Remick across the back; Lamar Neagle, Osvaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, Marco Pappa through the midfielder; with Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins paired up top.
Starting left-back, Leo Gonzalez is still finding fitness having recovered from off-season groin surgery – he featured in a friendly match against the University of Washington Huskies on Sunday, opening up space for sophomore defender, Dylan Remick.
Having made one appearance as a substitute in 2013, the 22-year old earned his first start with a solid preseason and did not look out of place in his first start.
With Dempsey having just returned to the club from a loan to Fulham and a US National Team match in Cyprus (against Ukraine, moved due to the current strife in the country) the Thursday prior to the opener, Cooper got the start up front with Martins against KC, with Dempsey subbing on around the hour-mark.
A week on, with a few training sessions under his belt and the travel-effects worn off, it is likely that Dempsey starts.
Just how Schmid fields his various weapons is yet to unfold.
Cooper and Barrett, though forwards, have featured wide in the midfield on occasion, while Neagle can play either side, or be an option up top. Plus, there is new homegrown signing Sean Okoli, who looked very lively in his brief stint wide on the right, breathing life into the Sounders attack and playing a role in the eventual game-winner.
Marcus Hahnemann provides a solid back-up in goal, while Zach Scott and Anibaba are useful defensive options; midfielder Andy Rose showed real moments of quality in his first season, but dropped off a bit last year, while David Estrada is a hard-worker, not without his quality, as that hat-trick against TFC in 2012 attests.
Frei has likely done enough to keep the starting spot as his for the time being and there is little reason to shuffle a successful lineup with a full week between matches so early in the year, barring any late announced knocks.
Schmid’s tenure as the sole-manager the club has ever known looked to be in doubt as last season’s results spiraled.
A poor start – winless through five - was resurrected by a strong run through the next three months, but were it not for an impressive eight-wins in nine-match run, the winless in seven to close the schedule may have prevented a fifth-straight playoff appearance – however, they did indeed sneak into the post-season, finishing fourth in the West, beating Colorado in the play-in match before falling to arch-rivals Portland in the Western Conference Semifinals.
For what it is worth, the Sounders had a strong preseason, going unbeaten through nine with six wins and three draws.
And when it counts, they managed a late win over Sporting KC in the dying seconds – courtesy of a jubilant Barrett – in the season opener on Saturday.
Part Two of Know Your Enemy will be posted tomorrow, going over the game-film and highlighting a few points of interest