Characterizing Toronto FC’s season thus far is a tough task. New DP’s Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco have delivered goals, but several patterned lapses in defending have led to too many unfortunate losses. In no game has Toronto FC really been able to dominate completely from start to finish.
The seven game road swing TFC endured, thanks to the expansion of BMO Field in the offseason, ended on a positive note with back-to-back wins in Orlando and Philadelphia, mostly earned through a stay at home defensive approach. High hopes for the home opener against Houston on May 9th left fans wanting more as uninspired and feeble play fell short of expectations.
It seemed that the struggle for an identity would never end as coach Greg Vanney wavered in balancing available firepower with the need to stop the bleeding. A narrow loss (on the away goal rule) saw Toronto FC fall to Montreal on May 13th in this year’s run of the Amway Canadian Championship, the Canadian stepping stone to the CONCACAF Champions League.
After sitting Altidore and Giovinco in leg one, Toronto FC entered the second leg at home down a goal. All DP’s were in the starting eleven and to be fair, Toronto FC played with a measure of intent that really should have been present four days prior against Houston. Putting on a good performance for the home crowd and asserting themselves as an offensive threat seemed to be paramount, but a failure to mark tightly in the box allowed Montreal to recover the away goal needed to get through on the aggregate 3-3 tie.
Despite the loss, the positive had to be the consistent form of Giovinco, who was finally able to get into space and use it well. A very nice through ball set up Altidore who made a good run and then managed to chip the ball over the Montreal goalkeeper. Jonathan Osorio and Michael Bradley played well; Osorio with excellent handling and delivery out wide, and Bradley with endless energy and high pressure on Montreal’s back line. Altidore also began to show his mettle in setting up Benoit Cheyrou and Giovinco later in the second half.
Swift and precise combination play followed in New England as Toronto FC went back on the road on May 16th. Altidore and Giovinco opened the game with the same spirited offensive tempo shown against Montreal. Several good combinations on quick counters opened up the New England back line, but Toronto could not score early and paid a bigger price with Altidore injuring a hamstring as he stretched out to send a ball across the box for Giovinco.
Luke Moore was quickly subbed on, and despite having a few close looks, the offensive momentum was carried more by Giovinco and Bradley as they took over in the second half and turned up the heat on New England. The result was a memorable single effort goal by Bradley. Chris Konopka, replacing Joe Bendik in goal, made several stellar saves, but the Revs managed to tie it later in the second half.
There are perhaps a couple of takeaways that could be gleaned from these recent performances. Firstly, Toronto FC has several offensive gears that when functioning, can do damage to just about anyone. We need to remember that New England is now an Eastern Conference heavyweight, not long off a trip to the MLS Cup. A draw in Foxborough is, in so many ways, worthy of celebration. The link up play, combined with the pace of ball movement Toronto FC was capable of producing for two straight matches in certainly something new.
The second piece is that Toronto FC appears to have found a more comfortable balance in transitioning from defence to attack, and vice versa. Keeping Bradley in an offensive role at the top of a midfield diamond, with Cheyrou protecting the back four has proven good on both ends. Bradley has been tenacious in keeping high pressure and creating turnovers. Several Options out wide in Osorio, Collen Warner, and Jackson have proven useful as well. Their ability to connect with Justin Morrow and and Ashtone Morgan in the wide back positions has proven critical to build up play.
Only time will tell if this momentum can be carried into the next contest, a visit to BMO from the Portland Timbers, a team that plays with a free flowing attacking style and had a healthy supply of weapons all their own. A return to old lacklustre form will raise frustrations once again. On the other hand, continued creativity and energy will bring Giovinco into the mix once again and home fans will see more of the team that contested the Revs so closely. It has been entertaining to watch Giovinco play and with any space at all, he will prove a lot to handle for any back line in MLS.
The replacement for Altidore (who may be out as much as a month) is perhaps the biggest question mark. Some folks feel that Luke Moore is the safest guess, while others are speculating that Robbie Findley will be brought in for a more direct goal scoring effort. Toronto FC also has the option of using youngster Jordan Hamilton, who has demonstrated promise as an offensive weapon with his size and strength.
Many will forget that Toronto FC managed to score two goals in each of the losses in Salt Lake and Chicago without Altidore and Bradley. Defensive troubles and a lack of confidence allowed these winnable games to slip away. The past two outings have shown signs of a squad that can control possession and dictate the tempo.
Every coach that has taken on the task of bringing this franchise along has maintained that building a winner takes time. Perhaps the time has come. If most recent performances are any indication, Toronto FC, who is currently languishing near the playoff border, has found an identity that will take them deep. Come on you Reds!
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