As you're no doubt aware by this point, the Seattle Sounders CONCACAF Champions League adventure did not come to the most glorious of conclusions. After hanging with Santos Laguna for two-and-a-half hours, things fell apart pretty dramatically and the Sounders were unceremoniously dumped out of the CCL quarterfinals, losing 7-3 on aggregate after taking a 2-1 lead into the second leg. It was, to say the least, a pretty serious letdown and far from an ideal way to kick off the season. But what's done is done. And the best way for the Sounders to put that whole unpleasant mess behind them is to pick up a win in this evening's MLS season opener against Toronto FC.
The Reds are coming into town with a slightly different take on the CCL quarterfinals, having knocked defending MLS Cup/Supporters Shield double winners LA Galaxy out of the tournament with a 2-1 win at the Home Depot Center. Toronto FC looked a much improved side during the latter part of the 2011 season, and if their performance against the Galaxy was any indication they've not missed a beat over the winter. There was little indication of the result being a fluke; Aron Winter's side was simply better over the two legs. Any belief that this would be a soft opening to the MLS schedule is out the window at this point.
This is a team that does things differently than any other in MLS; there's a fantastic writeup about Toronto's tactical approach over at Sounder At Heart, but the short story is that the Reds play a very fluid system that can switch from attack to defense in a heartbeat. They employ a very fluid formation that can shift seamlessly between three and five at the back, given them tremendous amounts of flexibility to adjust quickly to the circumstances. It's pretty nifty stuff, especially for a league such as MLS that is not known for being especially advanced in a tactical sense, and though the transition was not always easy it would appear as though Aron Winter has gotten the right pieces in place to make his system work.
Toronto has some very impressive talent in the side, but the two most dangerous are easily strikers Joao Plata and Danny Koevermans. Both could quite easily finish the season with double-digit goals scored and bring different things to the attack, making a comprehensive defensive strategy a bit more difficult to come up with. Given how most of Toronto's attacking play comes through the center of the pitch, the play of Osvaldo Alonso will be vital to the Sounders' success. From the standpoint of Seattle's attack, the interesting thing to watch will be what takes place on the flanks; the Sounders like to spread the play out wide, and if they're successful in doing so that could well keep the Reds' wide players pinned back far enough to cut down on counter-attacking opportunities for the visitors, and anyone that watched the Santos Laguna game (or, indeed, the Sounders in general all of last season) would likely tell you that's a very good thing.
There's a real sense that the Sounders are ready to put Wednesday's result behind them, and they'll need to pick up a win and start the season off on a high note to do so. But there's also a danger of feeling a bit too much pressure to perform, trying to do too much too soon and risking mistakes. Toronto FC presents some unique challenges, but given the Sounders edge in talent and home-field advantage Seattle are still the favorites. If the Sounders can force Toronto to play their game, the visitors will have a very difficult night of it. But if the Reds can put the Sounders on their back foot, this could be a less than stellar start to the season.