A successful two-game home-stand has been good for Toronto FC, collecting a pair of wins and solidifying their place on the table. Heading into the weekend they sit in fourth place in the East, tied with New England on 37 points, four adrift of third, but with a healthy eight-point lead on the pack scrapping over the final playoff spot.
But the ever-shifting tides of a season thrust forth a new challenge, the final truly trying stretch of the season arrives over the coming weeks: a trip to Seattle will be followed by a run of three games in a week – home to New England, away to New York City, and then back home to Colorado.
After that lies a straight shot to the finishing line, that Colorado match the first of a run of a five straight at home before ending the year in Montreal on the final day of the 2015 regular season.
As Michael Bradley said last week, the entire season has been building to this point, establishing the base required to contend when it counts. Toronto has achieved that. This new challenge will test their wills, especially without Jozy Altidore and more-likely-than-not Sebastian Giovino – and now without Collen Warner, who was suspending Friday for his tackle on Dominic Oduro, while offering a chance to get Plan B firing as well.
When the playoffs come, one wants to have all means primed.
A closer look at this weekend's enemy, the Seattle Sounders, is in order.
Having soared to the Supporters Shield last season, Seattle cleared the first hurdle, bypassing Dallas on away goals in the Conference Semifinals, only to fall to LA in the Western Finals; a loss made more cruel by winning the second leg at home, only for the Galaxy to squeak through on away goals themselves.
With a solid squad in place, Sigi Schmid tinkered around the edges in the off-season. Goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann retired, while Djimi Traore and Sean Okoli had their options declined, the latter was eventually traded to New England, his rights anyways. Jalil Anibaba was selected by Orlando in the Expansion Draft, while two players – Tristan Bowen and Josh Ford – left via the Re-Entry process.
The big news was the transfer of DeAndre Yedlin to Tottenham, a move that had been forecast long before finally coming to fruition.
One final minor move saw Eriq Zavaleta head to Toronto.
Their acquisitions were similarly understated. A pair of homegrowns – Victor Mansaray and Darwin Jones – were signed, while veterans Troy Perkins and Tyrone Mears were added on free transfers. Cristian Roldan and Oneil Fisher, amongst others, joined via the SuperDraft.
With the opening of the summer transfer window, Seattle began making more influential manoeuvres. Brazilian midfielder Thomas joined, as too did former Sounder Erik Friberg, returning to the club for a second stint, while Andy Craven became the first player to make the jump from the USL S2 to the first team.
A midseason dip prompted even further moves with a trio of high profile signings in the month of August. Andreas Ivanschitz and Nelson Haedo Valdez joined on free transfers just days apart, followed in short order by standout Panamanian defender Roman Torres, transferring from Millonarios in Colombia. Swelling the ranks of talent at Schmid's disposal as the Sounders push for another post-season run.
Like Toronto, Seattle will be shorn of a few key players due to international duty. New defender Torres will force a change in the back-line as he departs for Panama, while Marco Pappa leaves for Guatemala.
Clint Dempsey was called up by the American side, but like Bradley, will only leave his club following Saturday's match.
Schmid also has a few injuries to consider. Andres Correa, Andy Craven, and Damion Lowe are all out, while Leo Gonzalez, Dempsey, and Ivanschitz and also listed, though they could be available come kickoff.
Their projected lineup is as follows: Stefan Frei in goal; from right to left – Tyrone Mears, Chad Marshall, Brad Evans, and Oneil Fisher along the back; Erik Friberg, Osvaldo Alonso, Gonzalo Pineda, and Lamar Neagle through the midfield; with Nelson Valdez and Obafemi Martins paired in attack.
There are plenty of possible changes to that lineup.
Evans is not really a centre-back and has struggled at times when inserted into that new position. Zach Scott is a bulldog and without the trickery of Giovinco to face, he may be preferred to Evans. If so, Schmid will have a decision to make in the midfield: does Evans slot in, disrupting the Alonso-Pineda partnership, or take a wide role, dislodging Neagle on the left. Neagle is a more attack-oriented option.
Left-back too provides some challenges. Fisher is lively, but inexperienced. The veteran Gonzalez, if ready could return, or Dylan Remick could slot in. Especially if Evans is the left centre-back, some added experience at left-back could be beneficial.
In midfield, aside from finding a place for Evans, there is also Andy Rose, a hard-charging utility player that brings energy and an ability to break forward. He can play centrally or wide. The question becomes does Schmid want the two-man shield against a depleted Toronto, or will it be more important to get runs from the centre?
Thomas and Roldan are further attack-minded options that could get the nod.
Up top, Chad Barrett seems to have recovered from his celebratory hamstring suffered after scoring against LA, but is more likely a bench option give the riches Seattle enjoys. If Dempsey is fit enough to start, he could take up a central midfield attacking role, playing behind the striking duo.
Schmid has not yet shown his cards regarding how he intends to field his new toys. Will have to wait and see.
27 games into the 2015 season, Seattle find themselves in an unusual position, nearer the bottom of the standings than the top, currently sitting in sixth in the West on 38 points, tied with San Jose, who sit below, but have a game in hand.
For Toronto, this match is an example of how the timing of a schedule can be cruel. Mere weeks ago Seattle were mired in a desperate slump, having lost nine of eleven matches – a good time to meet, but now, they seem to have turned things around, winning two of their last three. Oh, cruel fate.
The season began with mixed results for the Sounders, winning on opening day, but only take full points in two of their first five, before finding their stride. Seattle would go on win four-straight before drawing against Sporting KC. A pair of further wins would stretch that unbeaten run to seven matches.
With the start of June came a wobble: a loss and a win before a stunning home defeat in the US Open Cup to Portland bounced the defending champions out of the competition at the first hurdle.
That upset began the slide, as the Sounders lost their next three straight. A win at the start of July against DC looked a turnaround, but five more defeats followed – at home to Colorado and Vancouver and away to Chicago, Montreal, and Los Angeles.
A Champions League draw away to Vancouver stirred signs of life, though followed by that defeat in LA.
Seattle finally burst out of that slumber with a 4-0 win over Orlando City, Martins nabbing a brace, Valdez grabbing his first, and Thomas adding the fourth in stoppage-time, the rout aided by a first half red card to Tyler Turner for a pair of bookings.
One factor that should not be overlooked is that with the beginning of the Group Stage of the 2015-16 CONCACAF Champions League, the Sounders have been forced into double duty. They would beat Honduran side CD Olimpia 2-1 at home three days after Orlando, but loss the away leg 1-0 the following week.
In between, they lost in MLS play, falling 2-0 in Salt Lake, goals from Javier Morales and Sebastian Jaime inside the opening twenty minutes enough to determine the result.
But Seattle would gut out a 2-1 win over Portland at home this past weekend. Martins and Evans tallied in the first half, the latter from the penalty spot. Jack Jewsbury pulled one back for the Timbers in the 58th minute, forcing the Sounders to ride out pressure to preserve the win.
With a full six days of rest and another barren week on the horizon, Seattle will be focused entirely on dispatching Toronto.
Part Two, reviewing the game film for strengths and weaknesses, will be posted as soon as it is able