Sounders provide model for Toronto FC

Toronto FC will have two of its three designated starters to face off against the Seattle Sounders in a big test to see if the Reds can live up to their off-season hype.

SEATTLE – It wasn’t that long ago that the Seattle Sounders looked to Toronto FC for inspiration.

When the Sounders joined Major League Soccer in 2009, they wanted to duplicate the exciting fan culture and game-day experience that TFC developed at BMO Field when they entered the league two years earlier.

It worked. Today, Seattle leads the league in average attendance (44,038 fans per game in 2013) and CenturyLink Field is one of the most exciting stadiums to watch an MLS game, rivaled only by Portland from a fan culture experience—this on top of the team posting winning campaigns in each of their first five seasons in the league

“A down year for the Sounders is making the Western Conference semifinals in the playoffs, which a lot of teams would gladly take,” offered Joshua Mayers, Sounders beat reporter for the Seattle Times.

But now the tables have turned, and it’s TFC who have taken a few pages out of the Sounders’ playbook in undertaking one the most ambitious and extensive off-season rebuilding projects in MLS history.

Though they have yet to win the MLS Cup, Seattle is, in many ways, the league’s exemplary franchise. The Sounders are bankrolled by a committed and smart ownership group, have one of the better general managers in the league in Adrian Hanauer, and Sigi Schmid is one the most successful coaches in MLS history.

It’s translated into success on the field. Seattle has won three U.S. Open Cups, reached the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, and never missed the MLS playoffs.

“I think Adrian (Hanauer) is very smart. He puts in the time and work with his team. They’ve assembled a great squad over the last few years,” TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko told Sportsnet ahead of the Reds’ season opener on Saturday in Seattle.

“They have smart people over there who are doing things the right way in a lot of areas of their club. It’s definitely a model club.”

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The Sounders are again expected to contend for the MLS Cup this year, having put together an impressive squad that includes American midfielder Clint Dempsey and Nigerian striker Obafemi Martins, two of the league’s more notable stars.

But it’s not just about the DPs. Seattle has also rounded out its squad by adding a number of veterans in the off-season, including forward Kenny Cooper, midfielder Marco Pappa, Chad Marshall (a two-time MLS defender of the year) and goalkeeper Stefan Frei—all of this with a solid core of players, including Osvaldo Alonso, already in place.

Likewise, Toronto has been busy this winter retooling the team on the back of seven losing seasons without a single playoff berth. Three designated players were signed, including English forward Jermain Defoe (TFC’s answer to Seattle’s Martins) and American midfielder Michael Bradley (see: Clint Dempsey with the Sounders), as well as Brazilian striker Gilberto.

A number of veterans were also signed to add more depth and quality to the team’s starting 11, including former captain Dwayne De Rosario, defenders Justin Morrow and Bradley Orr, and Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar.

And while Bezbatchenko didn’t look to the Sounders specifically for inspiration—“I looked at LA, Salt Lake, Seattle; it was a blending of all of them”—there’s no doubt he considered what they did when rebuilding TFC this off-season.

“They are ambitious. They have their model and philosophy, and it works. And I don’t see them faltering anytime soon,” Bezbatchenko said.

What Toronto FC has done hasn’t gone unnoticed by noted league observers in the United States, including former LA Galaxy GM Alexei Lalas who tweeted, “The season doesn’t start for me until TFC plays.”

Until the new-look, expensively-assembled TFC proves itself on the field, teams such as LA, Kansas City, Salt Lake and Seattle remain the gold-standard in MLS. But the Reds could have done a lot worse than look to the Sounders for a bit of guidance.

“What the Sounders would say when they got started was that they were following the TFC model, in terms of how they wanted to connect with the fans and developing a soccer culture. Now a couple of years later, when you look at the soccer side, it looks like Toronto is following Seattle’s lead,” Mayers said.

“And a lot of that has to do with (MLSE CEO) Tim Leiweke. Under this new regime, how Toronto has pulled it all together aligns with how Seattle gets things done, and how it’s become one of the best teams in MLS.”

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