Part One covering Salt Lake’s lineup and form was posted previously
Salt Lake’s strength through the middle of the park is the primary concern heading into Saturday’s match.
The oft-talked about spine of a team, from keeper through the centre-backs, on to the centre of the midfield up to the forwards, is meant to provide a measure of stability, reliability, and balance through the middle of the park.
Why is this important? Well, as one gets closer and closer to the white chalk, the options become more and more limited, whereas in the middle the possibilities are infinite.
This spine has been a constant feature of Salt Lake’s success – and one that the current edition of TFC is looking to emulate, in their own way.
Of the five goals Salt Lake has scored through their three matches, three have come via attacks pretty much straight down the pipe, while another made use of the middle to create the space for the attack from wide.
Their winner in the season opener against LA was part wonderful defense-splitting pass from Kyle Beckerman and part Joao Plata excellently exploiting a lapse of attention from the Galaxy back-line:
Plata would return the favour against San Jose, setting up Beckerman for this low strike from distance:
Both cases took advantage of hesitation on the part of the defenders – Salt Lake are masters of putting their opponent off-balance with hypnotizing ball-movement before striking at the perfect moment.
Adding to that danger is the ability to cause trouble from the wide areas, operating in the space created by the vacuum that draws attentions in-field.
Granted most of their touchline play comes from overlapping full-backs as the outside midfielders tend to tuck in and play narrow, but still that doubling up in the spaces either side of the full-backs is too much for a single defender to quell. Teamwork is required.
This is especially of concern to Toronto, who lack proper two-way play on the outside of their midfield – may not be a bad time to see Ashtone Morgan as a left-sided midfielder (likely wishful thinking), switching Alvaro Rey over to the right with Jackson suspended.
Tracking those runs will be key – Luke Mulholland’s unobstructed follow up of this Ned Grabavoy shot is a perfect example of how the collapse to the middle opens up areas of inattention on the flanks:
Plata’s opener against San Jose exemplifies how the two strategies interact to create a chance – Plata draws a pair of defenders way out wide on the left, then plays back to Luis Gil and heads into the box for the return ball:
Of course, Plata benefits from the luck of his hesitation pulling Jason Hernandez out of position and the fortune of the ball not being poked away in the shuffle, but that sort of outside-in movement will inevitably shift defenders – recall, Olmes Garcia scored a cracker against Vancouver last season from such a wide position, so it’s a bit of the old catch-22, go out to cover and open up space inside; don’t at one’s own peril.
And if a club leaves Alvaro Saborio this open, he will score nine-times out of ten - Saborio does not get enough respect for his goal-scoring feats since joining the club in 2010 (53 in 100 league appearances, better than a goal every two games), an unheralded star lost in the club ethos.
Of some possible intrigue is that LA’s weekend success against Salt Lake was to neutralize the diamond by deploying one themselves with Landon Donovan at the point and Juninho at the base.
Will Ryan Nelsen be bold enough to stray from his allegedly-dogmatic 4-4-2? Does that even matter?
In Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio, Toronto has two midfielders capable of trading off those two roles, of each alternating between closing down Beckerman and Javier Morales, while also being in position to launch attacks should the opportunity present itself.
This will be the most fascinating aspect of the match and will likely determine its outcome.
Salt Lake has conceded four goals this season, three against San Jose and one against LA – all four show how Toronto may find some joy on the weekend.
Against San Jose, all three goals came from restarts.
Salt Lake is a small team, aside from the centre-back duo, and that vulnerability was admirably exploited by San Jose. Victor Bernardez, the towering Honduran, was a pain, winning the Shea Salinas free-kick on to Chris Wondolowski for the first, flicking in a Salinas corner kick for the second, before finally capitalizing in a paralyzing scramble in the box to equalize late.
Toronto does not have the sheer volume of height that San Jose does – part of their success is that there are simply too many threats to adequately mark at one time – but both Steven Caldwell and Doneil Henry are due for a thunderous header in the vein of Bernardez’ tally from the corner kick.
Similarly, Wondolowski’s back-post run for the flick on could well be emulated, with one of the centre-backs winning the ball at the near-post for Jermain Defoe or another attacker arriving on the back-side:
Perhaps more likely though, is that LA’s goal in their second meeting will serve as a template for how Toronto can exploit Salt Lake’s vulnerabilities.
Chris Wingert finds himself isolated on the left-side of the pitch, where the alert Galaxy pressure from Juninho forces a turnover to send Robbie Keane in one-on-one with Chris Schuler – more-or-less, there were others involved in the break, but that was where the action was.
That sort of isolation is something that can occur, especially to the outside back when the rest of the team has gone forward, a lazy ball is hit back, and the opponent applies selective high-pressure. Toronto has fed off this sort of counterattack this season, and will look to do the same here.
The narrow play of the Salt Lake outside midfielders will open up lots of space for Rey and his guile – the Salt Lake players do a very good job of tracking back, but if caught up-field with a quick transition, Rey could be devastating and could play the ball across the face of goal that Defoe needs in order to out-quick a bigger back-line.
His chance against DC last weekend, stepping in front of Sean Franklin at the last second to a near-post cross from Jackson is the archetype of what TFC should attempt in this match. Use that wide space effectively and get a quick ball in for Defoe.
Heading into the season, one of the notes Waking the Red stressed was the need to score the first goal – teams who score first tend to win in MLS. Thus far, TFC has scored first in both and won; meanwhile, Salt Lake has scored first in all three of their matches, but drew two of those games, conceding leads.
Toronto has yet to trail in a match and should they go behind this is not the match to let heads drop.
Points of Interest
Recall it was, in part (others had to lose as well), Toronto’s epic loss to New York in 2009 that allowed Salt Lake to sneak into the playoffs, precipitating their Cinderella run to MLS Cup victory.
The two have met twelve times in league play with Salt Lake winning six and drawing twice – in the six matches played in Utah, the home side has won all but once: back in their inaugural season of 2007, TFC won 1-2 on goals from Jeff Cunningham and Collin Samuel with Alecko Eskandarian replying for Salt Lake.
Their most recent meeting, last June, saw Salt Lake end their winless streak at BMO Field with a 0-1 victory on the strength of a goal from Yordany Alvarez in the final throes of the first half.
Their last meeting in Salt Lake ended 3-2 to the home side – Beckerman opened the scoring after seven minutes, Eric Avila drew the visitors back with an excellent strike, only for an own-goal off Richard Eckersley to reinstate the host’s advantage. Henry again drew Toronto level in the 77th minute, only for a 93rd minute strike from Johnny Steele to break their hearts, once more.
Jurgen Klinsmann will be in attendance, sending evil thoughts towards TFC who so poorly treated his precious Clint Dempsey and wishing them away from Salt Lake’s trio of US National Team call-ups, Rimando, Beckerman, and Gil.