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Repeated Slow Starts to the Second Half Will Prove Costly for Toronto FC

It's a game of two halves. One of the oldest cliches in the book, but it's very much been the script for TFC so far this year. Impressive first half, poor second half. Why?

Time to think of a better second half plan Ryan.
Time to think of a better second half plan Ryan.
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Two matches into the season and already a pattern has begun to develop for Toronto FC.

In their opening match away to Vancouver, forty-five minutes of hard work were undone by thirteen seconds of beautiful ball movement that ended with Gershon Koffie lashing a strike past Joe Bendik.

Against Kansas City two goals in the first twenty minutes from Robert Earnshaw - and an awful lot of goodwill from the Toronto faithful in attendance - were nearly ruined when Claudio Bieler took advantage of Danny Califf being booked to slip into a centre-back-less pocket and pounce on a Jimmy Nielsen free-kick flicked on by CJ Sapong.

Individual plays, and very different ones at that, but both made possible by prolonged periods of pressure that TFC seemed to invite upon themselves in the second 45.

It comes as no surprise that a club headed by a former defender, Ryan Nelsen, holds firm to the principles of ‘defense first' and ‘hold what you have', but there are worrying signs in how different their approach is from the first half to the second.

Toronto has started both matches as a club on a mission. They hustle, they harry; they clog the lanes and pressure the ball carrier. They force mistakes, defend in numbers, and win their share of loose balls. All while maintaining a stable shape and thereby limiting the ability of their opponent to attack.

But something changes once they return to the dressing room with a solid forty-five - and a small measure of success - in hand.

They slow down, they lose their shape, and, most concerning, they drop deeper and deeper onto the top of - or even end up defending in - their own eighteen-yard box. They fail to match the opponent, or brace, ill-prepared for the eventual onslaught.

It is easy to predict, everyone knows it is coming, but for some reason they are not, yet, capable of easily seeing out a match.

Perhaps they are not fully match fit, perhaps the thought of nearing their aim sends the nerves a flutter; it should not be discounted that both opponents have made significant structural changes to affect the play from half-time on.

In Vancouver, the addition of Nigel Reo-Coker changed the match - and the Whitecaps shape - as he orchestrated the ball movement and allowed the goal-scorer Koffie freedom to move forward.

Against KC, it was Sapong who provided more thrust on the flank than Bobby Convey had offered; through his ability to move in-field and the threat of another scoring presence near the box he forced the Toronto defense on their toes and got them moving from their rigid structure.

Graham Zusi's threat is well-known: popping up all over the pitch, delivering set-pieces and generally stretching the play, but the role of Oriol Rosell was particularly interesting. He dropped deeper, at times almost playing as a third centre-back, allowing the full-backs more freedom to stay higher up the pitch and providing better initial passes in the attacking build-up.

Sporting's passing, a strength which until the second half was unutilized or stifled, sprung to life with the additional width and higher tempo stretching the game - and TFC's defensive structure - opening pockets within which the opponent found success.

Toronto had trouble adapting to these new threats and were made to pay in due time.

They began returning possession cheaply, whether by goal-kicks with no recipient or by booting clearances in desperation, ratcheting up the pressure, welcoming KC to attack in waves.

Equally concerning was how slow Nelsen was to insert fresh legs into the match.

With so many players new to the club and with a preseason even less-thorough than the one that was blamed for all their woes in 2012, to not use a single substitution until the final quarter hour of the match seems a risky strategy.

Again the dogma of the defender, not wanting to alter that which has worked, rears its head once more.

The high pressing that saw them through stellar first halves requires a lot of energy expenditure, making changes earlier would replenish those reserves and perhaps head off the problems before they get too close to goal.

If not for a header off the crossbar, a block near the line, a Zusi shot that whistled wide, and O'Dea recognizing he was caught slipping and taking a professional's yellow card, Saturday may not have been a win.

And Montreal is guaranteed to be an entirely new challenge - more on that in Know Your Enemy out soon.

Toronto has shown defensive resilience never before seen by the shaken faithful, if they can bring to the second half the energy with which they begin the match, this season may not just be an extended trial for next year.