The Sounders will be missing Nicolas Lodeiro and Clint Dempsey when they play at Toronto FC on Wednesday, but coach Brian Schmetzer expects his team to set the tone after a 2-0 championship defeat last December.
Five months since the last time they stepped on the pitch at BMO Field must feel like a lifetime to a Sounders squad that has fallen mightily.
As they entered that MLS Cup final against Toronto FC last December, the Sounders were the reigning champions. Now, preparing for Wednesday’s tilt at Toronto, they are tied for the worst record in Major League Soccer with just one win against a league opponent since taking the field that frosty cold championship game day.
It doesn’t get easier for coach Brian Schmetzer, who will again be missing midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro on Wednesday and likely Sunday in Portland as well as he rests what’s being called a “toe fracture’’ ahead of next month’s FIFA World Cup. Despite again being short-handed this stretch of three games in eight days, Schmetzer hopes his players remember the sting of their 2-0 championship defeat as they try to resurrect their disastrous 1-4-2 season thus far.
“We’re obviously not going to show any film from last year, but I’ve messaged it,’’ Schmetzer said of the MLS Cup game. “I’ve quietly reminded the guys who were here that — for the first 10 minutes of this game on Wednesday — we should be able to set the tone of this game. They should remember what happened. And if they have pride in themselves and their team, they should try to make amends for that.’’
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And Schmetzer is doing more than talk: He’s changing the tactics of a team that got demolished using a 4-2-3-1 formation against Toronto and hasn’t looked good in it since. The Sounders instead will deploy a five-man back line in a 5-4-1 formation against Toronto and use it in a way that the two fullbacks – Waylon Francis on the left and Jordan McCrary on the right — can rush up to join the attack.
“I’m actually hoping to get a little attacking punch from a different spot on the field with those guys coming late,’’ Schmetzer said. “And see if we can’t make something happen on the offensive end even though some people might think it’s a defensive formation.’’
The idea is for the three center backs – in this case Chad Marshall, Gustav Svensson and Tony Alfaro – to lock down the opposing forwards and allow Francis and McCrary to push upfield. Toronto might be vulnerable to a shutdown, with forward Jozy Altidore undergoing foot surgery Tuesday — leaving forward Sebastian Giovinco as the main threat up top.
Sounders left back Francis played a similar 5-4-1 formation in Columbus when he notched a combined 13 assists in 2014 and 2015.
The Sounders miss the two-way threat posed by left back Joevin Jones, now in Germany, and know it’s a big reason the attack has slowed so considerably.
Another culprit: only one of the four attacking players that started the championship game has scored this season. Will Bruin’s two goals are the only ones by any strikers or attacking midfielders in the starting lineup since that title contest.
Not only have that game’s attacking midfielders Lodeiro, Victor Rodriguez and Clint Dempsey yet to score, but Rodriguez hasn’t even suited up because of a knee injury. Lodeiro has been the team’s best attacking player but now almost certainly won’t play again until at least a May 26 home game against Real Salt Lake.
Dempsey also didn’t make this trip and center back Kim Kee-hee won’t play either as the Sounders rest up both for the Portland contest. Kim is coming off a calf muscle strain Schmetzer doesn’t want him aggravate by playing three times in eight days.
One person that will start is targeted allocation money signing Magnus Wolff Eikrem, who has seen the bench in recent weeks behind top draft pick Alex Roldan. Eikrem will line up on the left wing of a four-man midfield with Jordy Delem, Cristian Roldan and Handwalla Bwana to his right.
Bruin will be the striker.
Schmetzer felt the road game was the perfect opportunity for experimentation given how poorly things went in Saturday’s scoreless draw against a short-handed Columbus side.
“We’ve been toying with it in training a couple of times,’’ Schmetzer said of the formation. “I can take that same set of players and … we can change into a 4-2-3-1 fairly easily without having to make a sub.’’
Toronto heads into the match banged up as well, having taken the decisive CONCACAF Champions League game to the brink in Mexico last month before bowing out to Chivas of Guadalajara on penalty kicks. When last seen in Guadalajara in March, the Sounders were getting blown out 3-0.
Including that game, they’ve been blanked six times in their last eight competitive matches and scored just five goals. While the effort has been there, it’s clear from Bruin’s postgame comments Saturday that the team could be playing smarter.
“We’re going to try to see if we can’t fix a few things,’’ Schmetzer said.