Records can be deceiving this time of year. Toronto FC fans who glance quickly at the standings will see the Seattle Sounders in seventh place in the Western Conference. They will see a team that has won just twice all season.
However, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the defending MLS Cup champions are better than their record, and place in the standings, suggests. A tired Toronto squad without at least four key players will have to be at the top of its game if it is going to come away with any points at CenturyLink Field.
To find out more about what the Sounders have been up to since that fateful day on December 10, 2016, Waking the Red caught up with Dave Clark from Sounder at Heart.
1. There are a couple of new faces that have been added to the Seattle lineup since the MLS Cup. Which ones should Toronto FC fans know about?
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 defence to attack, assisting and still scoring. TFC didn't have to deal with defending both Dempsey and Nicolas 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 played (he’s now back in Sweden). Instead of being the third defensive midfielder he is now a regular starter on the back line. Toronto will see him as the left centre-back in his first start there - he's been the right-back and right centre-back so far this year. Svensson is a great passer and a 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 even if he does. Bruin is that big body with three quick steps. He works well centrally, but without the defensive effort that Nelson Haedo Valdez gave in last year's MLS Cup victory. Will scores a lot more goals, with three in 231 minutes as a Sounder versus one in 1313 regular season minutes for Valdez.
Shipp looks a lot more like the inspiring youngster with Chicago then the dud in Montreal. He is a possession-first, narrow attacking midfielder who has added two talents to his repertoire as a Sounder - penetrating off-ball runs and competent-enough defending to play as a defensive midfielder. Play can get rather narrow, though, when Shipp, Dempsey and Lodeiro are on the pitch together.
2. 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?
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.
3. Considering how good Seattle’s offence has been this season at generating chances, do you think it is only a matter of time before they start moving up the standings?
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 Sounders are tied with New York City for fourth in the league. TFC is in fifth by that metric. Not only is Seattle's offence fine right now, it will be getting better when/if Morris can play a match on a healthy ankle again and/or Morris/Dempsey/Lodeiro finish at their expected rate.
Projected starting XI: