Things have been changing all season long for Toronto FC, new management, new lineup after new lineup with Milos Kocic becoming the 37th player used in MLS this year, breaking the all time record. Saturday saw more new things, a clean sheet, it's certainly been a while since we had one of those, a 5 game unbeaten streak in all competitions which is a season high, a new starting formation as Aron Winter went away from his cherished 4-3-3, and also, maybe, possibly, signs of progress and real hope.
This was the first time since the transfer window opened and the flood of new players arrived that TFC had had a week off and were properly able to rest and train together and it showed, as it was a much more organised and fluid looking performance, especially in defence. TFC actually went with a 3-4-3 formation with Torsten Frings in the middle, playing almost as a sweeper behind Andy Iro and Richard Eckersley. In midfield Julian de Guzman started as the DM, with Danleigh Borman and Matt Stinson playing wide, with responsibility to come back and help out defensively.
It just worked well enough, though Milos Kocic had to make a couple of great saves, and Real Salt Lake hit the bar and wasted a couple of good other opportunities as well, so TFC were always flirting with disaster, especially in the last 10 minutes after they'd taken the lead. Eckersley had a great game, solid in defence, though not getting forward as much as he usually does when used as a pure Right Back, and Iro managed to avoid the mistakes that have cost TFC over the last few games. Frings made a big difference despite having a few individual errors that could have been costly, always organising and helping keep things together. I'd rather have him in midfield I think, but given we have more options there than we do in defence, it may be worth sticking with him there, whether in this formation or the more regular back 4, at least until we can bring in a true Centre Back with the same sort of experience and presence.
Aron Winter explained in his post match press conference that the new formation was specifically to counter Real Salt Lake and their style of play, and the extra man in midfield certainly helped. Whereas in the game at Rio Tinto, Real were able to pass it around TFC with no problem at all, this time it was made much more of a challenge. In that game Kyle Beckerman completed 85 successful passes, and Will Johnson 55, yesterday their numbers were down to 38 and 25 as TFC made things a lot more difficult for them.
TFC themselves looked a lot more comfortable passing the ball around in midfield. That may be due to having more options with the 4th man in midfield, but I'd say it's more down to the higher skill level on the team now. I'm not entirely convinced by Peri Marosevic or Eric Avila, they seem to drift in and out of games a lot, but there's no denying they're an upgrade when looking purely at skill and comfort on the ball, and TFC's passing seemed a lot more assured and quick.
The new formation helped going forward as well, especially down the left where Danleigh Borman worked fantastically with Joao Plata. With Plata usually looking to cut inside on to his favoured right foot, Borman was able to overlap down the wing and it was a very dangerous combination throughout the game, it's no surprise that the goal came from that side, Plata putting in a low inswinging cross with his right foot from just inside the box about 6 yards in from the goal line. Peri Marosevic almost got a touch at the near post but didn't, but Nick Rimando was distracted enough to not be able to stop the original cross from just creeping inside the far post.
Aside from Plata and Borman, there wasn't really too much menace up front though, as Eric Avila, Peri Marosevic and Danny Koevermans all looked fairly anonymous, and Eckersley's usual attacking contributions were also missed. After the first 15 minutes or so, most of the chances were for Real Salt Lake, but they either missed or were denied by Milos Kocic. Kocic had a very good game, following up his two solid (aside from THAT mistake) games against Real Esteli with another assured performance. His command of the box and decision making when coming for crosses was again very good, and he made whatever saves he had to, including one in injury time from Will Johnson to preserve the win. The on pitch congratulations from Stefan Frei and bear hug from goalie coach Mike Toshack were as well earned as they were touching.
All in all, it was a satisfying win against one of the better teams in the league. Real had more of the possession, and more of the chances, but TFC stayed organised, kept their shape and didn't collapse into a defensive shambles as they have done so often this year. Torsten Frings once again proved his value in that respect, and it's really no coincidence that the 5 game unbeaten streak has happened since he came along. If TFC can keep up this kind of defensive solidity and organisation, combined with the fact that we do now have a few different people who look like they can score, then better times are definitely on their way and this could be seen as a turning point.
Most of the signings and trades that Winter pulled off, and especially those involving forwards brought in skilled players, with hard working but limited MLS players like Jacob Peterson or Dan Gargan replaced with more skilled but inconsistent players like Avila and Marosevic. Though the defence still needs work, the midfield and forwards now very much fit into Winter's style of play, and in the last few games, the attacking side of TFC has looked very good.
Though the playoff are still nowhere close to happening this year, getting out of our CCL group looks a lot more likely, and as for next year, if Winter and Mariner can somehow bring in a top MLS-quality Centre Back, then the future could look very bright. At the very least, having used this season as a tryout for so many players, and basically got much of next year's preseason experimentation out of the way, TFC should have a settled squad going into the start of the season, and fans will be able to realistically expect a team that will reach the playoffs and could realistically challenge for more. That would be the biggest change of all.