Why Toronto FC Have Turned Around Under Paul Mariner
1-1-4. That is the record of the last place squad in Major League Soccer, Toronto FC, since Paul Mariner took over the position of head coach. The 1-1-4 record includes a 3-0 win over the Montreal Impact a 2-0 Loss to Sporting Kansas City and 4 draws, one each against Houston Dynamo, New England Revolution, New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas. While superficially a record in which the team in question has won 7 out of a possible 18 points doesn’t seem at all impressive, Toronto’s recent play represents a step in the right direction since Dutchmen Aron Winter left his post as manager.
Winter, a former Dutch international, was supposed to be the catalyst for change in Toronto, a club that has known almost exclusively disappointment and poor results since joining MLS in 2007. With Winter came a promise that Toronto would improve and finally make it to the plateau that has so far alluded them; qualification for the MLS playoffs. Winter’s plan was to implement a “total football” or “tiki-taka” style of play similar to that of the Johan Cruyff era Netherlands’ squads. This strategy entailed Toronto playing a 4-3-3 formation for almost every game under Winter.
At times this formation and style, although it never really panned out as Winter would have liked, was highly effective. After Winter was allowed to make some additions during the summer transfer window, including Dutch striker Danny Koevermans and former German international Torsten Frings, the team ended the season on a 3-2-6 run. Again while this record is not incredibly impressive to the naked eye if Toronto had played in this form the entire season it would have seen them finish 10th place, 6 higher then their 16th place finish and qualify for the MLS playoffs in the 10th and final spot.
However, that hope quickly evaporated when Toronto, after a huge victory in the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals over the heavily favored LA Galaxy, started the MLS season 0-9-0. This record, a string of nine straight losses, was unprecedented in MLS history. During this time Winter’s 4-3-3 formation and enduring strategy were supremely exposed. The 4-3-3 attacking and possession based formation simply wasn’t practical with the quality of players on the Toronto roster.
Several different problems quickly presented themselves with this formation in 2012 that weren’t existent at the end of the 2011 season. To begin with it became quickly apparent that Toronto didn’t have three strikers/wingers with enough ability to warrant being started simultaneously. While Ryan Johnson has been solid this season Danny Koevermans, the hero of the 2011 season, began the season on a poor run of form. Meanwhile Joao Plata demonstrated little ability to evolve after MLS defenders discovered his playing style. Furthermore, both Nick Soolsma and Regge Lambe, Toronto’s other two options in the third striker role, are both decent players but haven’t shown much scoring ability at the MLS level.
With three players playing upfront Toronto didn’t have the support defensively that they required. In modern football solid defense can be the great equalizer. As demonstrated in the Champions League Semi-Finals by Chelsea if your team doesn’t have the same extravagance of players as the opposition playing 10 men behind the ball can achieve results that never seemed conceivable. Toronto doesn’t necessarily have the quality of other MLS teams but they decided in playing 4-3-3 to play with 7 men behind the ball. Equally damaging was the fact that Toronto has little pace through the midfield and on the backline with the exception of Ashtone Morgan, who often moves forward. This allowed teams to catch Toronto consistently on the counter attack.
The fundamental tactical change that Paul Mariner has made to change all of this? Moving one of the problematic three forwards back into the midfield and playing a simplistic, yet effective, 4-4-2 formation. With the addition of a midfielder Toronto has played Torsten Frings, Julian De Guzman, Eric Avila and Terry Dunfield all at once. This has not only allowed Toronto a better defensive formation but it has permitted players like Eric Avila and Ashtone Morgan the opportunity to get forward and create chances without causing as much distress when possession is conceded. With the service that these players have been providing and the newfound space upfront Danny Koevermans has become the most dangerous Striker in the league scoring in each of his last 5 games including a brace in a 3-3 draw against Houston Dynamo. Koevermans now sits tied for 3rd in scoring and in him Toronto have found the goals that they have been lacking all season.
While the MLS playoffs are now out of the question, Toronto would need 39 more points (a record of roughly 10-5-3) to get close to playoff contention, there may still be cause for hope around BMO Field in Toronto. The squad is in tough against the team that defeated them in the CONCACAF Champions League semi-finals earlier this season Santos Laguna but stranger things have happened then Toronto advancing to the tournament’s knockout stages for a second straight year. Finally, this stretch and new system may be pivotal for some of Toronto’s youth, especially Morgan, Avila and 19 year old central defender Doniel Henry.
It may not be the season that Red fans have been craving since the club’s inception in 2007 but this season could still be a huge stepping stone for Canada’s first Major League Soccer club. Especially if they can use the summer transfer window to shore up a defensive system that has been poor since the very beginning.