Before Toronto FC has even played a MLS match, they've already pulled off what will likely be the biggest upset of the entire North American 2012 season. By beating the LA Galaxy in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, a team that has set the bar for MLS futility beat the one that has set the standard for excellence.
TFC accomplished this not by packing it in and just hoping for a break. They did it by largely standing toe-to-toe with a team many believed to be the best team on the continent (well, at least until they failed to beat TFC in either of their two legs, anyway). Sure, you could definitely argue that the Galaxy were the better team during the entirety of the quarterfinal, but give TFC credit for taking the aggregate lead at three separate times during the quarterfinal.
Nothing that happens during the MLS season will take away what TFC has accomplished. By beating the Galaxy, they are now the last MLS team standing in this year's tournament, just the second MLS team to ever advance to the CCL semifinals and the first Canadian team to get this far in the history of CONCACAF club competitions.
For all that, though, this is still a team that has never even come particularly close to making the MLS Cup playoffs during their previous five years of existence. Every other MLS team has managed to make the playoffs within their first four years of existence and no other MLS team has gone as long as five consecutive seasons without making the postseason. Given that history, many are going to remain skeptical of the Reds until they can show a bit of consistency during MLS play.
Their first big test will come on Saturday when they visit the Seattle Sounders, who are coming off a very different set of emotions from their CCL quarterfinal. Unlike TFC, the Sounders actually took a lead with them on their road leg. Also unlike TFC, they were simply overwhelmed and ultimately lost the second leg 6-1 to fall 7-3 on aggregate. It was a humbling loss, to say the least, and ranks as both their largest margin of defeat and the most goals the Sounders have allowed in a competitive match during the MLS history.
That result aside, they should provide a good measuring stick for TFC.
Both teams are coming off midweek road games. The Sounders obviously will have traveled quite a bit farther since Wednesday, but they'll have the benefit of a home match and close to 40,000 fans cheering them on in support. While the trip from Los Angeles to Seattle might not be so grueling, it is worth pointing out that once the travel from Toronto is factored in, their total distance is only about 600 fewer miles than the Sounders'. The point here being that the travel times and distances should probably cancel each other out.
That leaves us with the far more compelling on-field comparison between these two teams. As bad as the Sounders' loss to Santos Laguna was, they are still the same team that handed Los Guerreros a loss in the first leg and looked darn good doing it. They are also certainly no worse than the team that beat TFC by a combined score of 4-0 last season.
Of course, both games between the Sounders and TFC were played in what we should probably start referring to as BFD (Before Frings and Danny). Since Torsten Frings and Danny Koevermans made their TFC debuts on July 20, TFC has looked like a much better team. After losing the first two games with their Designated Player duo, TFC has gone 9-4-8 across all competitions. Included in that run of success were a tie against Mexico's UNAM Pumas, a win at FC Dallas in what amounted to a CCL elimination game and, of course, a 4-3 aggregate victory over the Galaxy in the CCL quarterfinals.
While that may not seem like a wold-beating run of success, it stands in stark contrast to the state of TFC BFD. The Reds had started the 2011 MLS season looking like they would make a run at becoming the worst team in MLS history, compiling a 3-9-8 record and a -19 goal difference in MLS play.
But Frings and Koevermans have really helped bring Aron Winter's 4-3-3 attack come together, even if it has essentially transformed into more of a 5-4-1. While not ideal, Frings has basically become a sweeper which has helped cover for what is still a pretty bad backline. On the other end of the field, Koevermans has showed a remarkable nose for goal. He's scored 10 goals across all competitions, with eight of them coming in just 10 MLS appearances.
The rising tide of Koevermans and Frings has had the effect of raising many of TFC's boats.
Koevermans also seems to have helped Ryan Johnson rediscover his form. Johnson, who arrived in Toronto after a midseason trade from the San Jose Earthquakes, has scored eight goals across all competitions for TFC. He's been especially effective in CCL play, where he now has five goals during the 2011-12 tournament, which is the second highest total.
The diminutive Joao Plata has also raised his game. During the final days of BFD, it was starting to look as if MLS had figured him out as he had gone 10 MLS matches without a point. Since then, he has scored five goals and registered three assists across all competitions.
There's no question that TFC is still very much a work in progress. Their central defense still has some gaping holes and that has kept them from fully utilizing Frings' playmaking abilities. But this is clearly a team that must be reckoned with. Saturday's game against the Sounders may not be the final word on that, but this definitely has the look of a team that will finally give TFC fans something to really cheer about.