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Toronto FC vs New England Revolution: Can we defend set pieces yet?

Kocic seems to be nicely developing his 'what the hell have I got myself into here' stare into the distance (TM Stefan Frei 2011)
Kocic seems to be nicely developing his 'what the hell have I got myself into here' stare into the distance (TM Stefan Frei 2011)

So, hands up who has any idea what to expect today? Me neither. Once the MLSE scoundrels are done taking refuge in the faux patriotism of 'Canadian Forces Night' the important action will be on the pitch as Paul Mariner's wild ride continues with his first home game in charge against his old team the New England Revolution. It's been nothing if not entertaining so far, with a 6 goal thriller in Houston added on to the 'sensational' 2-0 defeat in Kansas City, and the club escobar shenanigans of last Sunday night (ever the slick marketers, a new alternate jersey inspired by the events will be released shortly, The Yorkies have a sneak preview here).

It could be said that there wasn't really that much difference between the 2 games so far. Both featured sloppy (even by Toronto FC standards) defending from an undermanned and unorganised defence that appears to have no idea how to defend a cross into the box, from open play or a set piece. Both also featured some good TFC attacking, a TFC shot hitting both posts, and Danny Koevermans getting two great chances, only difference is against Houston, those chances all went in.

That would of course be very wrong as the performance against Houston was a big improvement, the most impressive factor being that the game was always very much in the balance. Whereas most of the good stuff in Kansas City came after SKC were already 2-0 up and they were coasting home with the game wrapped up, there was no such 'well, they weren't really trying' caveat to the positives that were seen on Wednesday, they should all be taken very much at face value, and can hopefully be carried forward into today's game.

Those positives were a midfield that at first glance looked designed to clog up the middle and offer little if any width, and was able to do that but also did contribute to the offence, with Eric Avila and Julian de Guzman doing occasional work out wide, and Terry Dunfield popping up all over the place and looking a genuine threat to score his first goal in TFC colours. Reports from training on Friday suggested Torsten Frings shook off whatever late game injury he picked up in Houston, and Mariner doesn't really give the impression that he's all that concerned about rest and squad rotation, so it wouldn't surprise me to see the same midfield out there, though maybe with Reggie Lambe out on the Right Wing depending on just how attack minded he wants to be.

The other big positive was a Danny Koevermans that looked back to his predatory goal poaching best with two very nice finishes. That makes 4 goals in 4 league games now for Koevermans after the fitness and injury affected false start to his season. Of course those 4 games have contributed all of TFC's league points so far this season, and it's no coincidence really. Despite appearances at the start of the season there's very little secondary scoring to be had from this lineup, so if the goals are going to come at a quick enough rate to actually accumulate some points, we're going to need Koevermans to keep going at this kind of pace. He'll obviously be starting, and given there's no other alternatives what with Luis Silva still on the naughty spot along with his partners in crime, Ryan Johnson will once again be up there with him.

The negatives are of course the defence, which shows no sign of improvement, and seems to have gone backward after looking better at the end of Aron Winter's reign. 5 goals in 2 games are the bare stats, but it really could be worse as it's pretty much chaos in front of poor, poor Milos Kocic. Richard Eckersley has his qualities, but also has his faults, particularly when it comes to positioning, marking and organisation, and playing at Centre Back really doesn't make him look good. Bless him for trying, and filling in in an emergency, but let's hope this experiment is just a short one. What are the alternatives is the big problem with that plan though. Adrian Cann seems to be now officially diagnosed with a knee sprain, and probably out for a while. How soon will Dicoy Williams be back to full match fitness and ready to start? How about Logan Emory, or the now seemingly forgotten Ty Harden? Also, is getting such a chaotic baptism of fire really a good thing for Doneil Henry right now? It's one thing to be the junior partner alongside Adrian Cann, but to expect him to flourish in this situation is a bit much and not really helpful in the short term and could actually hurt in the long term if it affects his development.

With the lack of good options, I'd expect the same back 4 to start again today ahead of Kocic, to give us a fully unchanged lineup. Training has once again reportedly focused on defending set pieces, though in this article Mariner seems to have almost given up on teaching them new tricks, suggesting now it's all about attitude, and wanting to keep a clean sheet. A depressing statement, especially when followed up by "We want to try and put a smile on our fans' faces. We want to put some pride back in the shirt to let them see we're having a go for them." and one that might just set the record for how much I hope something is just a tossed out media platitude rather than what a coach is actually thinking.

Results already don't really matter, it's all about the depressing "looking for signs of improvement" so let's hope we do see evidence of the defenders understanding their roles and becoming more comfortable with their new set up. Even against an injury weakened Revs team, there'll still be plenty of adventure to be found back there, so any kind of positive result will probably come down to how well the rest of the team can attack, and how much they can keep the play away from the fragile back 4.

Will we see the team that really took it to Houston in that first half, or will we see the passive and totally overrun side that started against Kansas City and finished against Houston? I think we'll obviously see both, it's just a question of how much of each side we get. I'll go with an entertaining and infuriating, delicious and depressing 2-2 tie.