TORONTO - The highs and lows of the Champions League quarterfinals will be on full tilt Saturday night when Toronto FC opens its 2012 regular season at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.
The Sounders will look to heal from the 6-1 bruising they collected in Mexico Wednesday night, an embarrassing performance that saw their manager compare the debacle to that of a slugfest.
“If it would have been a boxing match, they would have called it over,” Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid said following the Sounders Champions League exit. “Offensively, we had some good moments. But defensively we were very poor.”
And with the Reds currently playing with startling efficiency in the attacking third, Schmid’s “poor” defence will be tested for the second time in three days.
“It comes down to getting yourself the right scoring chances and being hungry for it,” Ryan Johnson said after scoring in two games against the L.A. Galaxy. “I’m not fighting any injuries right now like I was last year for a majority of the season. I feel good physically and a lot has fallen into place.”
The Jamaican international has scored four times in his last four appearances for the Reds, and could take advantage of a Seattle defence that limped out of Torreon.
“They’re going to come out hard because they have a lot to prove,” Johnson said. “They have big, physical guys like (Oswaldo) Alonso in the middle. We have to match it.”
Despite falling 7-3 to Santos Laguna in an aggregate series to start the season, Seattle’s front four is among the best in the league.
Following a widely under-appreciated 2011 that saw him score 12 times, an in-form Fredy Montero will threaten Toronto’s back five in more ways than any Galaxy attacker.
The Sounders also present more problems in the middle third as Uruguayan international Alvaro Fernandez and Mauro Rosales regularly advance from midfield — something TFC didn’t account for with David Beckham and Juninho manning the L.A. midfield.
Add to that the Sounders trading for U.S. international Eddie Johnson in pre-season and the Sounders have an abundance of players that can do damage in possession.
“We showed in L.A. we can shut down guys like (Edson) Buddle, Robbie (Keane) and (Landon) Donovan,” Ashtone Morgan said. “We can take a lot of positives from (the Galaxy) games and bring them to Seattle.”
Made clear by their pitiful midweek display, Seattle’s back four is lost at the moment. With goalkeeping legend Kasey Keller retired, a one-time sound back line appears more vulnerable than ever.
“We’re confident in our system,” Johnson said. “Even if things don’t go right (Saturday), we know we can perform ... and get results when people doubt us.”
Each of Seattle’s four backs struggle to contain speed and the club looks lost without Keller directing traffic. As seen in L.A. — a club that continues to miss defensive lynchpin Omar Gonzalez — removing a critical defensive piece can be disastrous in terms of organization and confidence.
But playing in Seattle is always a struggle. The club is expecting an opening day audience of close to 40,000 who will be looking for the Sounders to rebound from an embarrassing trip.
“From the first minute we have to match their intensity,” Morgan said. “It’s going to be a big thing to try and block out the crowd ... and absorb all the energy.”
DANNY KOEVERMANS VS. JHON KENNEDY HURTADO
Toronto’s towering target has failed to rediscover the scoring touch he ended 2011 with. But after a shaky performance in Mexico earlier this week, the Sounders back four looks ripe for the picking. Led by Colombian central defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, the Sounders defence was dishevelled and confused in its previous appearance, conceding more goals than ever before in a competitive fixture. Sounders head coach Sigi Schmidt wouldn’t point fingers, but noted “nobody in (Seattle’s) back” is playing well at the moment. But as the club’s anchor, Hurtado was astonishingly poor this week — just the thing Koevermans needs to open his account.
Seattle has a number of dangerous players that are going to get chances. Toronto must take the same tactics up the coast that saw it knock off the Galaxy just days earlier. If the Reds can absorb and breakout, they’ll find success against a Seattle defence that struggles to regroup on the counter.
The Reds have conceded three times through 180 minutes this season — all from mistakes that nearly cost them a place on CONCACAF’s last four.
While sloppy man-marking was to blame on Landon Donovan’s late equalizer at the Rogers Centre, mistakes from Stefan Frei and Ty Harden punished the Reds in both Champions League legs. Fact is, Toronto has yet to allow a goal not attributed to an error. If the Reds can eliminate the small lapses top teams don’t commit, they’ll concede far less in 2012.
* In three attempts, Toronto has never taken three points at one of the league’s most intimidating venues.
* Heading into 2012, Seattle announced it expanded capacity at CentruyLink Field to 40,000 for Sounders matches.
* The Sounders are 2-1-0 in league openers while the Reds sport a 1-4-0 opening day record.