Under very un-Floridian grey skies the Union played in the battle of the USMNT midfielders as we got our first look at Michael Bradley versus Maurice Edu. Once again we saw a 4-2-3-1 consisting of:
Wiliams Okugo Wheeler Fabiñho
LeToux* Nogueira Maidana*
*LeToux / Maidana switched wings frequently
*McInerney and LeToux initially took turns as the lone forward
The initial action saw Toronto take the initiative as Michael Bradley imposed himself on the midfield, seemingly reading every Union pass with ease. A couple of mix ups between Fabiñho and Maidana resulted in Bradley all-too-easily taking possession but after a dodgy first ten minutes The Union eventually settled down and began to put together some passes.
After scrappy play from both sides the Union took advantage of TFC midfielders not picking up the movement of Maidana off the ball as Nogueira was quick to spot the space. However one of the bright spots of the first half also gave us the greatest cause for concern. In the 17th minute a nice long diagonal ball from Nogueira switched play to Maidana on the right who held it up for an overlapping Williams. With no pressure from any defender Williams seemed to get the ball stuck in his feet and in playing a low hard cross to the near post (which came to naught) Sheanon appeared to injure his left leg. LeToux (first on the scene) immediately signaled for a sub and the trainer soon followed with the universal tumbling hands to confirm the end of the game for number 25. Ray Gaddis hurriedly came on to slot in to right back and almost immediately McInerney was played in behind the back four of TFC. Unfortunately a heavy first touch allowed Cesar the chance to come off his line and bundle the ball behind for a corner.
The fifteen or so minutes from the 10th to the 25th minute were certainly the best for the boys in blue as they exploited the space on Toronto's left wing with ease. Both Nogueira and Maidana drifted in to wide open spaces on the right as the Union looked to keep the ball as far away as possible from the roving Bradley who was seemingly covering a third of the pitch all on his own. Unfortunately most of the promising attacks fizzled out due to an all too familiar problem - a lack of midfield support. McInerney cut a sad figure, many times desperately huffing and puffing, making good runs off the ball only to find no service coming. The few times that he did get a ball played to him he was heavily outnumbered and either had to try and battle alone, head down trying to charge through a red wall, or desperately try and hold up the ball Connor Casey style waiting to bring others in to play. It was a frustrating afternoon for young Jack, and it might take a little time for him to get used to the new angles of play that the Union are employing in 2014. With the revamped midfield now playing quicker shorter passes the passing lanes are now much less vertical and direct. McInerney has some work to do to adjust his lines of running and more importantly the timing of his runs if he is to achieve his personal target of twenty goals this term. Too many times Jack would revert to haring off up field as soon as a midfielder gained possession instead of holding his run and allowing the play to develop.
As the first half wound down there were a couple of half-chances for TFC that were hurriedly smashed clear by a scrambling back four, with Wheeler frequently all at sea marking who knows who, the U were bailed out by a lack of accuracy on the part of TFC rather than solid organized defending. The last play of the half saw some penetration down the left wing as Fabiñho finally got forward and slung a low cross that was cleared to Carroll on the edge of the box. Showing good game awareness the veteran nodded the ball to an onrushing Edu who slashed a hard shot a couple yards over the bar from about 22 yards out.
An unchanged lineup started the second half and again Maidana was at the heart of most good things for the U, prodding and probing in the center of the park, creating space for others out wide. Unfortunately the TFC center backs were always going to win most things in the air and the best opportunities for the U were a result of a poor clearance or a mad scramble in and around the box. With high winds stifling the most creative players (DeRosario was anonymous) this was a game made for a big bustling, no-nonsense center forward to get on the end of a rebound or mishit - unfortunately there was still no sign of the one player on the roster who fits that bill.
On the stroke of the 61st minute MacMath narrowed the angle and made a good save as Wheeler (inevitably) completely missed his assignment and allowed Toronto a clear shot on goal from 12 yards out. The resulting break saw the Union roar up the other end and win a free kick on the edge of the D, but McInerney shot disappointingly in to the wall. Almost immediately TFC were awarded a free kick in the same spot after Okugu clumsily brought down his man. With MacMath rooted to the spot the Union was relieved to see the curling shot billow the outside of the side netting. With Wheeler finally put out of his misery and subbed out the players began to swap positions a little more and play became increasingly ragged. The Union continued to apply pressure but the final product was lacking with TFC content to head clear a succession of ineffective and hopeful crosses in to the box.
Yet again the Union failed to score, much less create quality scoring opportunities and after a brief period of hope and optimism some people are now beginning to get that all-too-familiar sinking feeling of anguish and despair. It is very hard to win games if you don't score goals, but despite the lack of end product there were plenty of very encouraging signs of a midfield starting to gel. The interplay between Nogueira and Maidana was a joy to watch and it is a fair assumption to believe that they can only get better as their familiarity with each other and their teammates increases. And despite some turnovers in the early stages the nascent partnership of Carroll and Edu showed some signs of teeth as they hunted as a pair to break up opposition attacks and snarl up the center of the pitch. It is a little too early to hit the panic button regarding strikers so let's not jump off the Barry Bridge just yet. Remember folks, it is preseason and the distinct impression I got from this game was that Hackworth clearly wanted to create as many opportunities for the midfield to be on the ball at the expense of the forwards. In that regard I would credit this game as a resounding success. Maybe the strikers are just saving their goals until the 8th of March. Here's hoping.