Eugene Rupinski, Brotherly Game) One of the biggest things I noticed about Toronto FC in their match against Real Salt Lake was that it was the exact same lineup that played against the Seattle Sounders in the MLS Cup Final. What does it mean to have that sort of continuity in a league where teams perpetually seem in flux?
James Grossi, Waking the Red) Given the amount of turnover seen in the past at Toronto FC, and the general churn that nearly every MLS club undergoes from one season to the next, that striking fact was indeed noteworthy.
That's not to say that the club did not make any moves over the offseason: they sought to shore up the back-line with the addition of Chris Mavinga, while Victor Vazquez was brought in to be the lock-picker in the attacking middle of the park, homegrown signings Sergio Camargo and Raheem Edwards, as well as draft pick Brandon Aubrey rounded out the main transactions.
Consistency is part of the long term plan that Tim Bezbatchenko and Greg Vanney have been pursing over the past several seasons, one endorsed by Bill Manning since he joined the group.
When he was brought in, Bezbatchenko said that building a club was a three-to-five year process. Last season was the third under his supervision; to say they made progress on that task, even if they faltered at the final hurdle, would be an understatement.
The plan has always been to establish a core group of players and from there, build. Though the process began before, the acquisitions of Michael Bradley and Justin Morrow saw it coalesce, while Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore were welcomed into the fold the following season. It was capped off with some MLS savvy in Drew Moor, Steven Beitashour, Clint Irwin, and Will Johnson last season. That long-term vision set the stage for this season's more targeted additions.
Being hailed as offseason championship three years running was all well and good, but there is value in a group of players having time to develop relationships, both on and off the pitch; this being a collective sport and all.
Vanney went so far as to call this continuity an advantage in and of itself. Paraphrasing, he said something along the lines of... in a league of parity, where the margins between teams are so slim, every little factor helps.
The confidence in your teammates, the unity forged over seasons, and the familiarity repetition breeds are all bonuses that can tilt an always tight ledger in one's direction.
The fruits of that were on display in Salt Lake, even if the match still saw plenty of rust. A clean-sheet at a tough Western Conference opponent, a point on the road, is never a bad result in MLS.
tBG) Toronto's biggest weakness used to be its defense, however I thought that unit was one of the club's biggest strengths last year. What will the Union need to do to break down TFC's defense?
JG) Asking for the state secrets, eh?
Without getting too specific on pressure points and vulnerabilities, the most obvious means of getting at Toronto's solidified back-line is to catch them in transition.
It has been a trait of modern football for some time, so this is hardly a new observation, but when teams are as fit, organized, and well-drilled as they are these days, it can become very difficult to break them down once they have settled into their preferred shape. But should they get caught shifting from a defensive look to an attacking one, then gaps can be left exposed, defenders out of position, midfielders moving in the wrong direction.
Toronto will take their time playing out of the back when the opportunity strikes – that is not to say that with Giovinco and Altidore they cannot play more direct if given the option. It allows them to get their full-backs, or wing-backs, as the case may be, further up the field, stretching the opposition's defenses and crafting pockets to move through.
But should that be delayed with pressure, or a poor-pass be played, it does allow the opposition a chance to transition quickly towards a relatively undefended Toronto goal. There were several such incidents on the weekend in Salt Lake – Joao Plata's shot blasted over the bar when one of Kyle Beckerman or Albert Rusnak (apologies, cannot remember which, pretty sure it was Beckerman), played a sneaky, quick ball over the top, catching TFC's defenders moving out the line.
It is, however, easier said than done. In Bradley, TFC have one of the better deep-lying midfielders in the league, while both Cooper and Osorio in the Salt Lake game, are adept at finding space, showing for the ball, and coming back to provide support. The extra width of the wing-backs doesn't hurt either and both Giovinco and Altidore are no slouches at dropping off the top into pockets to get on the ball early.
And should an opponent, such as the Union, dare to over-commit in search of such a bounty, they can get dismantled on the counter – just have a look at the attack that led to Nick Rimando bringing down Giovinco in Salt Lake for the penalty kick. Not exactly lightning quick, but good enough to cut open a caution-minded host.
tBG) Toronto's offense was limited to three shots on goal against Real Salt Lake. What should the Union do to look to keep Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore in check and off of the scoresheet?
JG) One suspects that Toronto will not be held off the score sheet very often this season. And the probability of them suffering two such fates in concurrent matches seems even less likely.
That said, given that both are still finding their form after a short offseason, now may be as good a time as any to hope for such an outcome.
In the case of Giovinco, the simplest method – deny him the ball at any and all times in any part of the pitch – seems as good a plan as any... though, of course, that too is easier said than done. For Altidore, one would look to have their most physically imposing centre-back man-mark him throughout the match, and an extra defender in support may not be a bad idea either.
The risk in either method is that, depending on the nature of the officiating, such a plan could result in plenty of dangerous free-kicks. And as Philly well knows, Giovinco can hit them from pretty much anywhere; for his part, Altidore is none too shabby at it either.
But not just that, in over-focusing on those two, the other threats – most obviously Morrow swooping in from his left-sided perch or a midfielder arriving late into space – will have plenty of free-reign to pick their moments.
As noted by the mere three shots on goal, Salt Lake did a pretty good job of not letting Toronto get behind them regularly and allowing TFC to take possession in those less troublesome areas. It is not a terrible idea until Toronto proves otherwise to pursue a more compact back-line, daring Giovinco and company to break them down, as opposed to risking an overaggressive strategy.
Vazquez is new to the league and still getting his feet under him. Should he be as advertized, that strategy may prove insufficient as the season wears on.
Injuries, suspensions, etc.: No suspensions at the moment, though one can never be too sure with the DisCo lurking.
Latest injury reports have Ashtone Morgan still recovering from a stress fracture in his foot – he will not be a part of the squad, though he was seen cruising around at training on Wednesday, though not a part of the proceedings. Steven Beitashour will be a question mark heading into the weekend. He took a ball to the face against Salt Lake. On Tuesday, Vanney was unsure if it was merely a sore neck, or something more serious, a possible concussion – test results were not back at the time. But now, (Wednesday night), MLSsoccer.com has him listed as undergoing the concussion protocol, so his participation is all the more unlikely, which will necessitate some creative solutions without a true replacement right-back on the roster.
And a word of advice: if any Union fans are thinking about coming up to Toronto for the August 23rd match, it looks to be TFC's only home game during the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition – kind of like a state fair), which is always good fun.
Predicted lineup: Clint Irwin; (3-5-2, Right to Left) Eriq Zavaleta, Drew Moor, Nick Hagglund; Marky Delgado, Jonathan Osorio, Michael Bradley, Armando Cooper, Justin Morrow; Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Giovinco.
NB: Vanney has a couple of options for the right-back spot. Delgado is a bit more of a like for like, at least in defensive department – albeit, not of Beitashour's calibre – though there was some musing that Tsubasa Endoh may be in contention to take up that wing-back position. In addition, the club has made some good noises about Oyvind Alseth, a midfielder out of Syracuse who they drafted 65th overall in the SuperDraft. He is yet to sign a contract, but has seen plenty of time on the pitch with the squad throughout preseason and there are still a few days before the game.
In addition, Mavinga is back with the squad following the birth of his child which saw him unavailable for Salt Lake and Vazquez showed glimpses in his cameo at Salt Lake. It is not impossible that either or both feature from the start on the weekend; expect Vanney to want to see what he has before settling into a preferred starting eleven.