The line between success and failure is fine.
That dichotomy proved both an asset and a detriment to Toronto FC in Seattle on Saturday, as the attributes of two of their young players first created a goal, and then conceded one.
Doneil Henry and Jonathan Osorio were the two youngest players on the pitch for TFC; together in the 17th minute, they combined to set up Jermain Defoe for the opening goal.
A clearance from the Sounders bounces up toward the half-way line, where Henry aggressively attacks it, heading forward in a controlled fashion into the path of Osorio. Osorio, collects the ball, sidesteps the half-hearted challenge of Marco Pappa and threads a lovely ball inside the right-back to play Defoe into a pocket of space.
The rest was all Defoe:
Most promising about the service is that Osorio does not actually pass the ball to the feet of Defoe, but puts it into space for the striker to pounce - note how the ball actually runs across the back of Defoe (the words predatory and clinical come to mind) who maintains his line between the two defenders, knowing that it will arrive in stride when needed.
Also worth mentioning is the unheralded role played by Dwayne De Rosario in this play.
The debate over his attitude, contribution, or age will circle endlessly, but it is the constant threat that he poses – and respect he has garnered throughout the league - that draws Chad Marshall out of the back line, opening the lane for the pass and Defoe to exploit.
Whatever numbers De Rosario may accumulate this season, it is as much his shadow and nous that will prove valuable, creating space for others by keeping opposition defenses honest and on their toes.
Equally advantageous was the wide threat of Jackson, who provided an option wide on the left, forcing DeAndre Yedlin to respect the possibility of a pass to the outside – Yedlin actually turns his back on Defoe and shapes up to that possibility, limiting his ability to track the central run. Osorio used that decoy very well, hesitating for a moment as he moved in that direction before cutting the pass back against his body line.
It was a lightning quick play that could have fallen apart at any stage – if Henry doesn’t bravely win that header, Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins have a two-on-one on Steven Caldwell from the centre; if Osorio can’t slot that pass, it’s just another half-attack. Of the variety of possible outcomes, scoring was the best, while conceding could arguably be the worst.
The natural aggression of a physical specimen such as Doneil Henry is an asset to any defender, combining size with the desire to use it, he can out jump the best of them (his prodigious leap over Marshall to win a header was mightily impressive) and will seldom be outmuscled.
His willingness to put himself on the line was evident on the offensive side of the ball, only having eyes for the ball from a corner kick and taking a whack to the face for his troubles, the header thumped just over the bar.
But half of playing defense is in knowing when it is best to back down, maintain shape, and let the play come.
The exact same could be said of central midfielders – especially those tasked with operating in a dual role of both attack and defense, such as Osorio. Knowing when to push forward, while spotting those moments of self-vulnerability and playing the safe, possession maintaining pass instead of the goal-seeking one, is an attribute that one learns with time.
Osorio’s feed for Defoe above, was a thing of beauty, quelling the concerns (for now at least) voiced over whether the high-priced finisher would be starved of service in a TFC-side that plodded in attack last season.
The ability to deliver such as pass is a mixture of vision and ability. Many can see the pass - say the fans in stands, the coach on the sideline, or players of inferior skill - but the actual ability to deliver the necessary ball, requires a combination of technique and confidence; an attribute that comes easily with precocious youth.
Passes, particularly the most cutting ones, always come with the risk that they will be intercepted, swinging the momentum and possession to the opponent, while putting one’s own side at risk, having committed to the attack thus opening the possibility of a counterattack.
The Warning Signs
Despite taking a surprise two-goal lead inside the first 24 minutes, there were concerns mounting about the final result as the match continued.
Toronto was conceding possession far too easily – Seattle bossed the match with 67.7% of possession, and showed an inability to maintain possession for stretches of play – their pass completion was somewhere between 69.2% and 72% (depending on the source), which is simply not good enough.
Turnovers, whether interceptions from the good work of the other side (Seattle made seventeen, with far too many in the attacking half) or misplaced passes (of which TFC tallied some 96), are the most sensitive moments in games.
Making matters worse was that Toronto were clearly tiring – the cost of playing such an energy-sapping, high-pressing style (which has its benefits), especially on turf early in the season.
In the excitement of being in a winning position, TFC continued to commit men forward – that was the first mistake.
When a club is in the lead, it is sometimes necessary to take the foot off the gas and play a little more conservatively. That is not to say that bunkering is warranted, though it has its place – and the benefits of running up the score are obvious, but if one must take risks in order to force goals, one must limit them in order to prevent those against.
Henry’s bald-faced aggression nearly proved costly in the 60th minute when he got a little too tight on Pappa on the edge of the box, opening up space behind him for Martins to exploit via a lovely Pappa back-heel pass.
Thankfully Caldwell, savvy veteran that his is, was over in a flash to cut out the danger with a crucial block.
Eventually those very same assets that had given TFC the lead, granted the Sounders a way back into the match.
Osorio collected the ball deep in the Seattle half and decided to play forward – his pass to Jackson on the edge of the box could hardly be term low-percentage – as Marshall had to pull off an exceptional bit of defending to knick in front of the attacker and steal the ball off his foot.
The turnover with so many committed forward put TFC on their heels.
Marshall played straight to Dempsey who found Lamar Neagle on the right-touchline before turning up-field himself anticipating a counter.
Justin Morrow was supporting the attack and now out of the defensive picture and Henry would exacerbate Toronto’s vulnerability when he thundered into an attempted challenge on the halfway line, which Neagle avoided and rolled a ball down the line for Martins. The counter that was building now had Henry out of the picture, trailing the play and putting Caldwell in a very awkward position.
Martins is off to the races down the right flank, while Dempsey is thundering up the middle and the only other defender behind the ball, Mark Bloom, must stay close enough to his man on the far-side, Kenny Cooper, to prevent a simple cross to open the opposite side of the field.
Neither Michael Bradley, nor Osorio, both gassed from their exertions, can adequately recover – Bradley actually tracks Martins at first, but then relents.
Martins puts Caldwell off balance with a faint to the outside before shaping inside to play a ball across the top of the box for the arriving Dempsey, who takes one touch with his left to settle before lashing in quickly with his right foot.
As a side note, perhaps Julio Cesar could have done better to not allow Dempsey so much space at the short-side – there was a recovering Bloom blocking the far-side of goal, but those situations are difficult to sum in the moment and with time more confidence in his teammates, the faith to leave that side to the closing defender and focus on the more likely hole, and in himself, will show in the veteran keeper, who has not played very much the past year.
Anyway, that was hardly the problem; by the time the ball arrived at the keeper’s door, the damage had largely been done.
The mark of a true professional is consistency; Coaches crave it, and young players are often not capable of providing such reliability – it is both their bonus and their curse, as the same attributes that can make a player a factor, can equally make them a detriment.
It is a fine line after all.
The trick is to keep that ledger balanced in the positive direction.
There will be lessons to be learned by both young players throughout the season, this time those mistakes merely spoiled a clean-sheet rather than costing points. No doubt Ryan Nelsen and his coaching staff will continue to work on those issues, while fitness and sharpness will limit those moments as the season progresses.
As a final word on the opening day victory, Toronto was able to do many of the things prescribed in one of the preview posts here at Waking the Red.
They scored early and first, added a second in short order, then saw out the lead (hiccups aside) and did not concede in the final third of the second half – though Dempsey’s goal came close to crossing into that danger threshold – that is the recipe for winning; time for some home cooking.