SEATTLE – Excitement.
That was the palpable feeling surrounding Toronto FC’s final training session before it plays its Major League Soccer season opener Saturday in Seattle against the Sounders.
Excitement was the one word consistently uttered by the majority of players when questioned by the media at Friday’s practice. You could see the excitement etched on their faces, with the extra spring in their steps, with the way they drove balls a little harder at goalkeeper Julio Cesar during drills.
But underneath lurked an unmistakable sense of foreboding among the players and coaching staff—be it ever so slight—and an understanding that the Sounders pose a serious threat. The potential for TFC to be on the receiving end of a blow out Saturday courtesy of one of the best teams in MLS is very real.
“Seattle is such a great team and they’re really well-coached,” TFC coach Ryan Nelsen said.
“It’s a well-run organization from top to bottom. We hold them with a lot of respect and it’s a great way for us to start against arguably the favoruites to win (MLS Cup).They have some fantastic players, including Clint Dempsey who’s settled within the group. It’ll be a tough challenge but a challenge we’re looking forward to.”
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While TFC had a bye in the opening week of the new campaign, Seattle posted a dramatic 1-0 home win over reigning MLS champions Sporting Kansas City before a raucous home crowd of 39,240 fans.
The Reds’ pre-season has been disjointed, as they’ve dealt with a series of injuries to key players, and star forward Jermain Defoe, one of three new designated players signed in the off-season, only joined the team for the first time this past week.
Seattle’s CenturyLink Field is one of the more intimidating MLS stadiums for visiting teams. Combine that with Toronto’s less-than-ideal pre-season preparations, and the Reds could stumble out of the gate badly, something they’ve been notorious for each MLS campaign since entering the league in 2007.
Michael Bradley, though, believes this TFC side has the potential to be a very good team, and that any early hiccups can be overcome
“It’s a long season, and especially early on we have to know no team is going to play perfectly,” Bradley offered.
“We’re going to have to rely on our mentality and commitment, and give it everything we have to come away with points; knowing that as the season moves along we’ll start to find out rhythm and play better and better.”
Scoring has been a longstanding problem for the Reds, which is one reason why they brought in Defoe. The Englishman is one of the top scorers in the history of the English Premier League and 31 he still has plenty of life and game left in his legs.
But his late arrival in Toronto is cause for concern, as is the fact he hasn’t had time to develop chemistry with his striker partner, be it Dwayne De Rosario or Gilberto. Not that he sounds too concerned.
“The more games you play and the more you train, the more understanding you’ll get. It’s not easy straight away to click, but after a while I’m sure I’ll be okay,” Defoe said.
Familiarity with his new teammates isn’t something Defoe has going for him. But he does have a point to prove—to the doubters who say TFC overspent to get him, and to England manager Roy Hodgson, who is considering Defoe for his World Cup roster this summer.
Saturday’s contest will be nationally televised in the United States on the NBC Sports Network, and Defoe hopes Hodgson will be tuning in so he can prove that he deserves to go to Brazil.
“I’m sure (Hodgson) knows what I can do. I’m sure he’ll show an interest in the games and see how I’m getting on,” Defoe stated.
Here is Sportsnet’s projected starting 11 for Toronto FC, based on Friday’s training session in Seattle.
(4-4-2): Julio Cesar – Justin Morrow, Doneil Henry, Steven Caldwell, Mark Bloom – Jackson, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Alvaro Rey – Dwayne De Rosario, Jermain Defoe.
Jermain Defoe said he is ready to play a full 90 minutes: “No problems. I feel fit as well. I can't see why not.”
Gilberto did not travel with the team as he is dealing with a hip flexor. Nelsen said Gilberto will train with the team next week and that he hopes the Brazilian forward will be ready to play in the Reds’ home opener on March 22 against D.C. United.
Gale Agbossounde also didn’t travel to Seattle because he didn’t crack at the game-day squad. Midfielder Jeremy Hall remained in Toronto due to a hamstring injury. Nelsen said he is a couple more weeks away from returning to action.
Bradley Orr is available for selection after dealing with a niggling calf strain. But Nelsen is expected to start Mark Bloom at right back
NOTES: Canadian international Issey Nakajima-Farran trained with the team on Friday in Seattle. Nelsen said he hopes a contract "is close" to being finalized, and hinted that the midfielder could see action against the Sounders if the deal is done in time... Nelsen confirmed three TFC players who will be sent on loan for the season to their USL affiliate in Wilmington, North Carolina: Goalkeeper Quillan Roberts, and midfielders Manny Aparacio and Dan Lovitz. A fourth “floater” spot will be a used as the team’s needs arise, Nelsen said.