For the past two years, both Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders have stood atop the MLS mountaintop. Seven weeks into the 2018 season, however, the 2016 and 2017 finalists have been anything but dominant in league play.
It’s still very early; look no further than Seattle’s 2016 season to show that a team can overcome poor form as late as July to make a run to the playoffs and win MLS Cup. All the same, should fans of the two sides be feeling a little worried?
For Toronto FC, despite a 1-3-0 record, the answer is a very quick and simple “no”. The champagne bottles had barely been popped last December after their 2-0 win over Seattle in MLS Cup 2017 and the Toronto players were already talking about wanting to win the CONCACAF Champions League. That is the priority of this team right now, and well it should be.
So while TFC fans were left feeling annoyed after an opening-day 2-0 home loss to Columbus and then a 1-0 defeat to rivals Montreal Impact, the prospect of becoming the first ever MLS team to win the tournament since the new CCL format was adopted in 2008 and also earning a FIFA Club World Cup berth along the way is too great a prize to ignore.
Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney is smart to rest his starters during the intermittent MLS matches while his side is in the CCL. The Canadian club has the quality to quickly dig itself out of the Eastern Conference basement and be sitting among the top three by the end of May.
Toronto will be fine. It’s too talented, too deep and too experienced to need to press the panic button.
Seattle is a much more complicated story.
The Sounders are off to a dreadful 0-3-1 start and did not score their first goal of the season until last Sunday’s 2-2 draw at Sporting Kansas City.
The problems are many, but the most obvious is injuries. Even before the regular season kicked off, things started inauspiciously for Seattle when Jordan Morris tore his ACL in the first leg of their CCL round-of-16 first leg against Santa Tecla of El Salvador. After battling through injuries in 2017, 2018 was supposed to be a fresh start for the forward, but now those 17 goals from the previous two seasons aren’t around.
The absence of midfield anchor Osvaldo Alonso has also been felt. The Cuban missed the first three contests and only returned last Sunday. Paired with Cristian Roldan, they form one of the best interior midfield duos in the league, and with no Alonso protecting the back four, Seattle has been vulnerable.
The lack of discipline is also concerning. In the first three games the Sounders failed to reach full-time with 11 men on the field. Notably, the red cards to forward Clint Dempsey and defender Kelvin Leerdam in weeks two and three and their subsequent suspensions have hurt. Those are two impact players that were on the field last December in MLS Cup. Coach Brian Schmetzer simply can’t afford to be without them.
Age is another factor. The Sounders aren’t getting younger. Dempsey has been able to roll back the years in recent seasons, but at 35, you can’t expect him to keep that up. Injury-plagued Alonso is 32 and center-backs Chad Marshall (33) and Roman Torres (32) are no spring chickens.
The point here is that each season MLS gets younger, and even the slightest loss of speed can make the difference between getting one point or three. Were tired legs a factor in Sporting KC getting that 85th-minute equalizer? It well could have been, even though the Sounders’ set-piece defending has hardly been good this season.
Schmetzer does have some young talent to rely on, like Roldan, defender Nouhou and midfielder Handwalla Bwana, but one has to think that an attacking investment during the summer transfer window will be needed.
Toronto FC can rest easy in the knowledge that the postseason will not be in peril, but the same cannot be said in the Emerald City. Seattle showed in 2016 that it has the heart to rescue a season from the abyss; whether that can be accompanied by the body and mind in 2018 remains to be seen.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .