As usual, Toronto FC looks the part of a tournament contender

Toronto FC tournament

Editorial — Group C may not be won yet after Tuesday morning’s scoreless draw with the New England Revolution, but Toronto FC have certainly looked the part of a group winner and tournament contender in Orlando this month. With young Ayo Akinola, one of the bright stars of the group stage, and savvy veterans like Alejandro Pozuelo, Michael Bradley and Marky Delgado plenty good enough to give the Reds a suave and steely edge in midfield in most of their games, Toronto is proving yet again it will be a tough tournament out. 

Entering Tuesday morning’s “winner takes the group” match with New England, however, Greg Vanney had lamented the performance of his defense through the tournament’s first two games. Despite two outstanding ball winners in midfield, Toronto’s back four surrendered five goals in the tournament’s first two games, prompting some tough love from Vanney ahead of the group stage finale.

“It’s been disappointing in the back. Our timing of when we try to move together as a group, and how to control things defensively, especially with the lead, hasn’t been great. We have to be better on that end,” Vanney said.

The question at Disney has been, essentially, could the team put together 90 minutes defensively. Vanney was optimistic about the club’s growth in that respect Tuesday.

“Winning the game was the goal, but getting the clean sheet was important for our group moving forward in this tournament,” Vanney said. “We know that we can score goals, and with Jozy coming back we feel we’ll be even more dangerous in the knockout stage. But defensively, we showed some resiliency today. We’ve given up some goals we’re not proud of early in this tournament and I think given the opponent and stage, this shutout was very good for the group today.”

Defense is a question for Toronto FC

Still, the defense remains the club’s biggest question mark ahead of the knockout rounds.

With Bradley looking terrific coming off ankle surgery and the first extended rest he’s had since rejoining MLS in 2014, and the team showing a deft scoring touch with Spanish playmaker Pozuelo and the young Canadian-American Akinola — spelling Jozy Altidore to the bench — scoring five goals (more than most teams have the entire tournament), there is reason to view Toronto as tournament contenders. Altidore’s return, which almost immediately saw the longtime US international help his team earn a penalty, only adds to Toronto’s versatile attack.

Further, with league play likely to resume next month and Atlanta United, darlings of the East the last few seasons, floundering without Josef Martinez,  it’s hard not to view the Canadians as Eastern Conference favorites. Steady Columbus Crew, along with the emergent Philadelphia Union and their ferocious counter press, will certainly have its say, but it’s worth remembering that for all the fanfare around Atlanta, it’s Michael Bradley’s Toronto FC who have represented the Eastern Conference in three of the last four MLS Cups.

In the group stage in Orlando, we’ve seen little to suggest Toronto’s typical place atop the Eastern Conference hierarchy will be displaced. 

Toronto can beat you in a number of ways

With Delgado and Bradley, they can suffocate you centrally and can break you down patiently in the final third. With Liga MX veteran Omar Gonzalez and smooth Richie Laryea in the back four, they are comfortable building from the back. Finally, with the playmaking chops of Pozuelo, the pace of Akinola and Bradley’s penchant for the slicing diagonal from deep in the scrum, they are plenty capable on the counter. Unlike other Eastern Conference contenders, there’s no one size fits all prescription to defeating Toronto FC. 

Tuesday morning’s game against the Revolution, for all the yawns it may have induced at home, was an object lesson in Toronto FC’s versatility. 

In the first half, Toronto dominated possession, patiently using an effective Bradley and Delgado to control tempo, pry a compact Revs defense apart and create the only chances of the half. In the second half, New England upped the line of confrontation, and Toronto absorbed the pressure, content to play quickly to play quickly on the break after winning possession. The Reds looked dangerous playing both ways, even if Bruce Arena’s stout Revolution defense made the final ball difficult. 

And when things go wrong? Alex Bono remains more than capable of making huge saves, like the fingertip save he made on Diego Fagúndez in the second half. Or this point-blank stuff of Adam Buksa minutes later. Bono’s return after a bit of a layoff certainly appeared to steady a backline that struggled to organize in the tournament’s first two matches.

“We definitely improved today. We did get a shutout. Haven’t seen many in this tournament. To give a full 90 minute effort, plus all the added time is impressive. Guys were struggling out there. It’s difficult in that heat. But from minute 1 to minute 90 we were focused and I thought from the front with (Ayo Akinola) to the back four, we played organized and together and should be proud of that zero,” Bono said following the match. 

Last Words on Toronto FC

It’s a well-built team, and one that has proven its worth again and again in tournament formats. 

Toronto did, of course, leave points on the field in the group stage. 

A late collapse caused the club full spoils against D.C. United and despite dominating possession, the Reds couldn’t find a way through against a game New England team that conceded only once in the group stage. As a result, Toronto’s knockout stage seed remains in flux, with the Reds needing some help in the D.C. United-Montreal Impact match, which will be played late Tuesday evening. Still, whether Toronto FC are the No. 1seed out of group C or the No. 2 seed, they’ll likely be its most lethal knockout round participant. 

“We’re content with where we are,” Vanney told the media following the New England match. “I’ll nitpick forever — we should have taken three in the first game. But we had two 9 a.m. games, which is brutal, but we made it through and we showed some resiliency. The team continues to build and that’s what this event is about, especially coming off three-to-four months of nothing.”