Just as the question of Brian Mullan's suspension came to a close and it looked as though the Sounders could begin to recover from Steve Zakuani's injury with minimal distraction came the news that striker O'Brian White will be out indefinitely after undergoing surgery to remove a blood clot from his knee. Having to adjust for the loss of Zakuani presented a big enough problem for the Sounders; Zakuani is easily the Sounders most dynamic attacking player, possessing a combination of physical tools and skill unmatched by anyone else on the squad. Zakuani might not be Seattle's consensus best player, but he is undoubtedly the player that caused opposing teams to most significantly adjust their tactical approach in order to contain him. O'Brian White is quite clearly not on the level of Zakuani but his absence will force the Sounders to make some significant tactical adjustments. Outside of Mike Fucito Seattle doesn't have anyone that plays along the front line with above-average speed, and it seems clear that no matter Sigi Schmid's squad selection the Sounders are going to be forced to play a style a bit more dependent on possession and creativity than we're accustomed to seeing. As with any significant stylistic change, there are going to be some growing pains.
Fortunately, Toronto FC is as good a team as you will find to have coming to town in the wake of all of this. The Reds are a team in flux at the moment and though there are some very positive signs pointing to a bright future under Aaron Winter, they're clearly not quite there yet. Toronto boasts some quality players, with a solid front line composed of Javier Martina, Alan Gordon and Maicon Santos leading the way, but they play in front of a midfield that's been less than assertive in terms of the battle for the center of the pitch and disrupting the opposition's attack. The end result has been a team that isn't especially strong in any one facet but not disastrously bad at anything either; Toronto is solid if unspectacular up top and at the back and something less than convincing in between. Dwayne De Rosario's departure to the New York Red Bulls meant the loss of Toronto's best and most explosive player but the end to his time with the Reds had been coming for quite some time; while the on-field product might be weaker it's also fair to say that with De Ro moving on the club is now able to turn its full attention to the future.
And the future in Toronto seems to involve a possession-focused 4-3-3. MLS is still very much a league where teams play to counter away from home, but Toronto is not nearly as content to bunker as most others. In the early going their style, while still having the rough patches ironed out, is a departure from league norms. Winter has brought with him a very Dutch approach to the game (although lazy allusions to 'total football' aren't especially accurate if they did in fact ever have much meaning) both on and off the field; Winter's Reds appear to be a team that want to play the ball along the ground and do their damage through steady build-up play rather than explosive bursts. It's not quite Tika-Taka but it's certainly not boom-and-rush, Route One stuff either, and it's fairly interesting.
In the end though, talent matters a whole lot as well and the Sounders-in spite of two very key injuries-simply have more of it. Enough questions remain about the team's ability to adjust to life without Zakuani and to a lesser extent White that optimism is going to be tough to come by for a bit. Still, playing in front of what promises to be an electric and supportive crowd-even by Seattle standards-against a mediocre opponent could be just what this team needs to get things moving in a positive direction.
When asked who might take over Steve Zakuani's spot on the left, Sigi Schmid named no fewer than five possibilities and who we see at the position tomorrow evening is still up in the air. The smart money seems to be Mauro Rosales, with one of Alvaro Fernandez or Erik Friberg on the right and Alonso and Evans in the center. It's also possible that we see Friberg back in the middle as well should Schmid see a need for a more attack-minded player in Zakuani's absence. Fredy Montero is practically a given at the withdrawn forward spot with Nate Jaqua sliding into White's spot up top. Jaqua is reportedly not 90 minutes fit just yet, so a drastically different look with Mike Fucito and Montero leading the line together late on isn't out of the question. Expect a return to the familiar Riley-Hurtado-Parke-Gonzalez back line.
This is a huge game for Seattle, as Toronto at home is one they should expect to take three points from, in spite of recent events. It could tell us a great deal about the squad's ability to deal with adversity as well as give us an idea as to how the team might look from a tactical standpoint for much of the rest of the season. It's reasonable to expect a Sounders win, but not without a whole lot of butterflies in the hours beforehand.