James Grossi, Waking The Red) It has been a strange month for Toronto FC.
In the midst of their best season, with everything to play for, including a chance at the Supporters Shield, the team was unable to string together the results they needed to make the most of the opportunity.
It's tough to pinpoint exactly where the problems lay. Obviously, being without the services of Sebastian Giovinco, undoubtedly the best player in the league, was a set-back, but even so, the club has played well enough that the winless run sticks out as peculiar.
Jozy Altidore has been in form and scoring, new additions Tosaint Ricketts and Armando Cooper have hit the ground running, and aside from the Giovinco injury and a knock to Will Johnson, the side has been relatively healthy, especially considering the injuries they overcame throughout the rest of the season.
Come the end of the season there are two factors that come into play when assessing results: every point seems to matter more, with clubs biting and clawing for playoff positioning, and the consistency and familiarity built up amongst teams becomes more of a factor as the margins between success and failure narrow.
The first means that even when at home, victories come with less ease than a throw-away game midseason; the second that a team like Toronto who has succeeded as a squad, without a true starting eleven, is somehow diminished against opponents who are well-oiled machines.
As good an explanation comes from TFC themselves: attention to the finer details.
And that certainly has seemed to be a factor. Toronto's rock-solid defense, that had conceded 29 goals through the first 28 games of the season, would go on to allow 10 through their final six matches – a marked difference.
Many of those goals came as a result of individual errors, momentary lapses, that can be so punished at this time of year.
Those two factors, as well as the absence of Giovinco, led to an imbalance in the side's offensive and defensive capabilities.
Without Giovinco, who adds as much as a goal per game when he is on the field, whether scoring or assisting, the side simply could not afford to allow the opponent more goals than they deserve.
tBG) What can the Philadelphia Union do to stop or at least contain Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore?
WTR) Haha, good luck with that.
The two have combined for 27 goals and 20 assists this season. Woe to the opponent who faces TFC with both of them firing.
Altidore has two goals and an assist in his last three matches, while since returning from injury Giovinco has a goal, admittedly from the penalty spot, and two assists. More to the point, there were glimpses of the genuine class that Giovinco possesses on the weekend against Chicago – watch his role in setting up Justin Morrow's goal on Sunday if any evidence is required.
He was unable to volley that pass, but showed his deft touch on an earlier passage – there is rust there, but the shine is returning quickly; perfectly timed for TFC.
If any scant help could be offered, let alone to an opponent, the instruction would be a simple one: force them both into isolation.
That is no foul proof solution. Altidore can shirk even the sturdiest of defenders at will – as poor Ken Tribbett will recall – while Giovinco is dangerous wherever he gets on the ball, regardless of situation, but if a team were able to force the duo into both initiating and completing their own attacks, they become less threatening as a duo.
Eliminating one from the match does not necessarily make the other any less dangerous – the two have gotten better as a duo this year, but given their injuries, they have not played together as much as a TFC fan would have liked. But if at least the two are not threats at the same time, it would make them more manageable – though it would still require the services of at least four defenders, if not more, to really mark them out of the match.
The other possible avenue would be to simply deny them service. But in order to do that, Philadelphia would have to boss both possession and the midfield at TFC's home ground – a task almost as unlikely as keeping both Giovinco and Altidore quiet.
tBG) Toronto's defense is criminally underrated. Are there any weaknesses the Union can hope to exploit?
WTR) Much though the forwards garner the headlines, the real story of TFC's season is the turnaround that the defense has seen from last year to this.
In twelve months, the club has gone from league worst to second-best – from 58 goals against in 2015 to a mere 39 in 2016, a decrease of nearly 33% year over year. That is an astonishing statistic.
In fact, it was a focus of the side this year.
After the dispiriting loss in the playoffs to Montreal, TFC held their end of season media day where the front office – Bill Manning, Tim Bezbatchenko, and Greg Vanney – all admitted that 58 goals against in a 34 game season was unacceptable, unworkable.
They set about rebuilding the team from the back, bringing in Drew Moor, Steven Beitashour, and Clint Irwin to address the deficiencies that they saw, while also tinkering with how the side played, making every player – except for perhaps Giovinco, though he does his part – personally responsible for keeping the ball out of the net.
That emphasis did come at a cost. The club scored seven goals fewer this season than last, and players such as Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio have been expected to do more on the defensive side of the ball than in attack, reducing their production numbers. But it paid off – the side's goal differential was +12, better than the 0 in 2015, while they finished three places higher. Were it not for the fall swoon, those figures would have been even more exaggerated.
As far as what Philadelphia can do – unless they happen to have a spare Ignacio Piatti lying around (the Montreal player is a TFC killer) – two general tactics could be advantageous (can't be giving away any state secrets here).
The first is put pressure on them. No back-line is immune to the occasional error; the question becomes: if the chances present themselves, is there somebody on hand to capitalize on the misstep? This means following up shots on goal, testing defenders in possession, harrying and chasing; it also entails a fair amount of risk, dragging players out of the positions they need to be in to stifle TFC.
The second is to look for isolation. The strength of a defensive unit comes in their unity. When a back-line can function as a whole, they can compensate, provide cover for each other, pick up any missed marks, and correct any minor errors. But when individual defenders are picked off, say as a lion would a stray wildebeast, even the strongest herd can be bitten.
Injuries: TFC has reported there are no injuries, Will Johnson got a good 20 minutes against Chicago on Sunday – he was the lone major absence – but Ashtone Morgan has yet to feature after a long lay-off. No suspensions either.
Lineup: Clint Irwin; (3-5-2, Right to Left) – Eriq Zavaleta, Drew Moor, Nick Hagglund; Steven Beitashour, Armando Cooper, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio, Justin Morrow; Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco.