This was a strange one really, watching the game at the time there seemed very little energy to TFC's game and I was generally unimpressed, uninspired, After rewatching the game this afternoon, I still kind of feel that way, but really like what they tried to do, it just didn't quite come off, and then defensive mistakes cost them at the other end.
The first curiosity was the lineup, Michael Bradley was back, and in midfield with Collen Warner as you'd probably expect, but then there was also Bradley Orr, how was that going to fit into a 4-4-2? As a 4-2-3-1 was the answer to that, Orr and Warner as the 2 DMs with Bradley ahead of them, Jackson on the left wing, Luke Moore out on the right and Jermain Defoe the lone striker.
As you'd expect with such a midfield heavy lineup, there was a genuine attempt to play a possession game, some patient buildups, and similar to what we saw in New York when TFC got the ball close to the DC goal, there was often some tidy passing and probing to try and find a way through. It didn't quite come off for them though and generally the more dangerous chances came from quicker more direct attacks, playing balls for Jermain Defoe to run onto. Unfortunately those chances generally came on Defoe's left foot, not his most lethal one and so the goals you might expect from that didn't come.
There were a few half chances created, and despite their designation as the defensive midfielders and their reputations, it was Collen Warner and Bradley Orr who provided some of the best moments. Warner gave Defoe his best chance and looked quite good going forward all game really, while Bradley Orr had probably the best moment of the game, especially the first half with a delicious ball to Justin Morrow down the wing, making the move to create the angle and then threading the ball between 2 DC players, Morrow's cross sadly evaded the outstretched leg of Jermain Defoe. Being further back obviously gave them more space to start moves and often Michael Bradley decided to get in on that, dropping deep to pick up the ball from the defence, or Joe Bendik who was playing short balls a lot more than usual.
DC were also a lot more circumspect than they were in their first game in Toronto back in March, as if determined to not let TFC beat them with the counter attack, and TFC were pressing quite high when DC did have possession, which stifled them well. It all added up to a more deliberate matchup, less excitement but definitely tactically more interesting, a bit more grown up if you will, and TFC definitely had the better of that first half, DC having no real chances, and no shots on goal in that first half.
The goal to reward that didn't come of course and sadly Nelsen didn't stick with what was working, instead bringing on Dominic Oduro for Bradley Orr to start the second half and returning to the old standby 4-4-2. It led to more action at both ends of the pitch, and a bit more of an exciting half, but looking at the post game quotes and both Ben Olsen and Nick De Leon noted how that change and the extra space it created in midfield made things easier for them.
In another blow to hopes of sticking with the possession game, it was trying to play out of the back that cost TFC for the 1st goal. Nick Hagglund and Justin Morrow got a bit too cute and Nick de Leon stole the ball and ran at the defence, holding off Hagglund and using multiple feints and changes of directions to confuse the rest of the defence, Collen Warner and Steven Caldwell frozen in front of him, Caldwell's arms flailing wildly, before De Leon got a low shot off past Joe Bendik, a very well taken goal though all started by TFC losing possession in a dangerous area.
That was in the 54th minute and it didn't take long for TFC to get back into it. After pressuring DC into a long clearance, Collen Warner got the ball up to Jackson who slipped a pass to Defoe who held off Bobby Boswell just inside the box on the left side. He didn't have a direct route to goal so instead pulled it back to Jackson at the top of the box. His long shot was blocked by Bill Hamid, but DC were slow to respond to the rebound, allowing Luke Moore to slide in and knock it home.
Almost immediately after that, Michael Bradley was subbed out for Jonathan Osorio, presumably due to fatigue, and it seemed like TFC as a team were tiring so weren't really able to press for a winner with much effectiveness.
DC's winner came from another defensive mistake, this time failing to defend a corner, allowing Perry Kitchen an unmarked header which he sent decisively downward and past Bendik.
After that TFC huffed and puffed, but their only real chance came right at the end of injury time, a deep Warner cross hit first time by Dan Lovitz. Good technique by Lovitz to keep the shot down and on target, but it met an equally good save by Bill Hamid, in position to block the ball and push it wide. the corner came to nothing and the whistle was blown, TFC's first defeat in 7 games.
The other talking point came late when Nick Hagglund challenged Eddie Johnson on a breakaway. There was minor contact and Johnson really sold it, and so the ref blew for the foul. Hagglund was the last man, but Johnson was about 30 yards out and heading more to the corner than the goal, so red card or not? the ref gave a yellow, then eventually after talking to the assistant ref, he changed his mind and gave a red instead. If it was a foul, then yes it should have been a red, but what's with the changing his mind like that? A huge cliche used to argue the futility of players arguing with the ref is that ' the referee isn't going to change his mind'. If we're setting a precedent that yes, the ref might change his mind, I can't see that leading to good things, why shouldn't players argue with the ref, or at least encourage him to discuss things with the linesman or the 4th official if they think he got it wrong (and they always think he got it wrong)?
Anyway, that decision had no impact on the game, the defeat was a bit harsh on TFC but not excessively so. That means now it's just 2 points from 3 games after the world cup break, TFC's points per game now dropping to 3rd in the conference, the advantage of those games in hand potentially slipping away.
Ryan Nelsen will want to get back to winning ways as soon as possible, but hopefully he resists the temptation to fall back on the simple 4-4-2 formation again and will instead continue to send his team out to play like they did in the first half, similar to how they did against New York. It hasn't quite got the results yet, but any adaptation is going to have it's growing pains and early struggles. Keep going with it, let the players become more familiar with it and each other. July's going to be tough with the schedule, but generally they'll all be more rested, Michael Bradley especially which can also only help. Though the results don't show it, and the actual play hasn't yet shown it consistently, what we've seen since the break looks a hell of a lot more like a team that can improve, that can get the best out of the extra quality in the squad than what we've previously seen.
Courage, bravery, determination. All adjectives used to describe Ryan Nelsen in his playing days, hopefully they also apply to him now as a Coach. Though the second half change suggest he might not be fully committed yet, after starting to show some more tactical adventurousness, let's hope he sticks with it long enough for it to bear fruit.