Back in December readers were promised an off-season series of articles looking over the 2013 season and projecting forward into 2014. Well, with MLS kicking off on Saturday and TFC’s season set to get underway the following weekend in Seattle, clearly time has run out on that proposition. Apologies.
But, in that spirit, over the next week those conversation, albeit in a condensed form, will be presented starting with a look at one of the major foibles of Toronto’s game last season, namely, using the ball effectively.
Whether using the entire field, hitting a decent cross, or capitalizing on dead-ball opportunities, Toronto’s attack was severely stifled by inadequacy.
Switching the Play
One of the enduring images of the 2013 season was Hogan Epraim frantically gesticulating that he was open on the left and looking for a pass that never came as the centre-backs shuffled the ball meekly amongst themselves.
Equal parts familiarity (not knowing where their teammates were) and confidence (safer to play the easy short pass) this shortcoming absolutely killed any momentum and flow, allowing the opponent to recover numbers in defense.
Here’s an example of the delay in moving the ball from TFC in Colorado:
Ryan Richter’s hesitation in getting the ball out wide to Jeremy Hall, who is clearly a little ahead of his teammate decision-wise, allows Hendry Thomas time to make up the space, while the Colorado back-line and keeper, Clint Irwin, can size up the chance and deal with the threat easily enough.
Interestingly enough, that same match was the debut of Matias Laba, who seemed a tailor-made solution to this plodding problem.
In his 16 matches, Laba’s vision to see a pass and the ability to play it was one of the more underappreciated facets of his game – his tenacious, tough tackling general busyness was widely appreciated, but it was that first pass that really showed promise for 2014.
Of course, he is now gone.
Fret not, as through the preseason Michael Bradley has proved a more than adequate replacement for the Argentine in the midfield.
The General, as he affectionately became known during his time in Italy, will live up to his billing and prove a valuable fulcrum in the middle of the park for Toronto, look for most, if not all, the attacks to start with him as the catalyst, whether hitting a leading ball into space down the flanks or threading through the middle.
Without getting too bogged down in details – opponents tend to clog the middle and allow space on the flanks, it is important for every team to use the wide space effectively in order to create scoring chances.
Not many goals will be scored from those areas – wind-assisted Nick LaBrocca screamers aside – but effective crossing can undo a tightly-packed defense or, if executed quickly enough, exploit holes in the opposition.
TFC recorded some 563 crosses through the course of the season – including a season-high 33 in that dreadful loss at Chivas USA, in which they played with a man-advantage for most of the match.
That, works out to 16.56 per match, but the club scored only 4 goals from them (simple math back-pat, 0.71 % of crosses were turned to goals) – which is just plain wasteful.
Crossing is always a low-percentage game, but that is horrible.
Anecdotally – it is hard to provide video evidence, as hopeless wasted chances and easily headed defensive-clearances rarely make the highlight reel - the number of times spectators were on the edge of their seats anticipating a play only for the man in space to send his delivery sailing high, or long, or short, or straight into the opponent – basically anywhere but the intended target - was just depressing.
A properly devised cross can be devastating – Kansas City scored 10 of their 47 goals from crosses, while Philadelphia (with a pair of elusive strikers) nabbed 12 of 42.
The horizontal ball movement can leave both keepers and defenders scrambling to cover.
Here is Bright Dike and Mark Bloom slicing open a second-string DC side in that 4-1 romp from September:
It wasn’t even a great connection from the forward, but still the movement was enough to flummox – with two TFC players basically out maneuvering three opponents. That is the beauty of a good cross, that it can even the odds of numerical disadvantage by creating and exploiting space.
Even when it comes off, one of the flaws of TFC’s attack was evident in the Dike goal - a dearth of targets in the box. Toronto was very reticent to commit numbers forward, often with just a single option well-covered by two or three defenders.
Good things happen when extra men go forward – as this Robert Earnshaw goal against Montreal attests:
Toronto had three people in the box on that break, giving the Montreal defenders that extra little bit to consider.
And two of the best moments of the season came from crosses - the sheer excitement of proper execution:
With a mediocre preseason under their belt, it is difficult to project too much into the start of the campaign. The first few weeks, as the raft of new players get to know each other, may be a little underwhelming, but with the likes of Alvaro Rey, Jackson, and Justin Morrow on the pitch TFC will be looking to use those wide areas.
And Jermain Defoe has a pretty deft touch.
What Toronto lacks in size up front, they make up for with the sort of darting speed that should allow them to get the first touch on a slicing ball across the face of goal – they need to forget about hanging up a ball at the back-post for a big target to go up and retrieve – as did Hall in his cross against Colorado above.
Most defenders in MLS will outsize them, so they need be sharp, not physical.
Toronto scored just once from a corner kick in all of 2013 – Salt Lake, Colorado, and New York each had seven, tied for the league lead – and TFC’s wasn’t even straight from the corner, but required Jeremy Brockie hanging the second ball after the initial delivery went clear through the box.
Of the 163 corner kicks TFC took in 2013, countless were either overhit, sailing harmlessly away, or underhit, smacking into the first man at the near-post – a cardinal sin, if even there was one.
Given the dominant aerial abilities of Caldwell and Doneil Henry that is incredibly wasteful – if one is going to bother running centre-backs into the fray, it would seem sensible to at least give them something upon which to feast.
Part of that problem was that Toronto had no one designated taker, with a handful of players having a go – Osorio, Convey, Rey, and Silva handling the majority.
That is in part recognition of the constant turnover in the team and part a reflection of the inability to hit consistently good service - there is little doubt this season who will likely handle corner kick duties: Bradley.
Like crosses, corners are generally low-percentage attacks, but every opportunity to get a dangerous ball into the opponents’ box, especially with the big men in place, is worth exploiting to the max. Having a reliable quality of service clears the first hurdle – and hopefully the first defender – what happens after that is a crap-shoot, but at least one is increasing the likelihood of good things happening.
One of the more peculiar things about the first half of the season last year was how Toronto opted to take free-kicks. Darren O’Dea would loft these high, sinking deliveries that would return from orbit in a near-downward trajectory, hanging it up for someone to go up and get it.
It had its positives, whether Justin Braun capitalizing on Henry winning the loop:
Or, tempting the opponent’s keeper into a rash walkabout, New York’s Luis Robles in this case, that opened the target for Osorio to finish sweetly:
It was an odd tactic, because Toronto did not have a lot of size, aside from centre-backs, which would leave them severely outmanned in those scrambles.
Earnshaw in particular did not have the size to go up and win the ball from a crowd – though he did alright when isolated on a single defender.
It could be argued that that strategy had its place from deep free-kicks, but for closer attempts whipped in balls fare much better, as this Daniel Woolard own-goal evidences:
Toronto did not have the height to loft balls to the back-post; as with crosses, more applicable would have been a strafed ball across the face of goal that needed the slightest of touches to be redirected goal-ward.
Additionally, Toronto did not score a single goal directly from a free-kick all season.
Hopefully, Bradley once again will correct this inadequacy:
Perhaps even Kyle Bekker will finally break that duck, or Osorio or Rey, or maybe Dwayne de Rosario can roll back the clock, remember Houston in 2010?
Last season’s TFC’s attack was stifled by poor service caused by a lack of familiarity, movement, and quality. Have they done enough in the off-season to correct these shortcomings? Time will tell and with the season set to begin next Saturday, soon enough.