Well Toronto FC fans, the post-season is finally upon us... and isn't it strange to actually care for once? Your Reds will be taking the pitch on Thursday evening to battle their rivals from our neighboring province, as the most anticipated instalment of the 401 derby will end up with either the Impact or TFC moving onto the conference semi-finals, while the losers head home for an early off-season.
This begs a myriad of questions- is Greg Vanney the right man to lead Toronto to success in their first playoff game? What strategy will (or should) Vanney employ? Which players will (or should) he field in his starting eleven? And the question we'll all ultimately care about come the final whistle- will his chosen squad and tactics be enough to lead Toronto FC to glory, allowing the Reds to return to BMO Field for another match before old man winter hits full force?
While most of these questions are impossible to answer, some are fun to discuss and debate. Who should Vanney include in his starting eleven- which players will give Toronto the best shot at success in the Big Cheese (Joey Saputo)'s playground?
Toronto FC have had many players rotate through the starting lineup over the course of the campaign, but have never managed to really establish a true bona fide starting eleven. Unfortunately, that means Toronto's players may not have had the ability to ‘gel' and really learn to play together to the same extent that other teams have throughout the season. Of course on the positive side, that also makes it more difficult for opponents to prepare for Toronto, and gives Vanney options to choose from and flexibility in formations.
What does the best starting eleven look like for Toronto FC as Thursday approaches? While some positions have clear starters, others still have, for a lack of better words, "position battles" going on. Those are the roles that require further analysis and discussion- feel free to share your own starting eleven in the comments.
Goalkeeper - Chris Konopka. The difference between Konopka and Bendik, two fairly average MLS keepers, is minimal, but TFC have seemed to find more success with the team's lesser compensated keeper between the posts. While average goals against (Konopka's is better by 0.6) is more often attributed to the backline in soccer, Konopka's save percentage is also higher than Bendik's, by roughly 5%- not an insignificant margin. Better to have opponents fear the beard than put the baby-faced backstopper back on the field.
Left back- Justin Morrow.
The only debate here is whether to start Morrow on the right instead, with Ashtone Morgan manning the left side of the pitch. While Morgan played acceptably well early on in the season along the left, he has now seen limited time over the last few matches, playing in only one of the last four. Rather than throwing Morgan back onto the pitch for a critical game hoping that any rust magically slides off him, I would argue to keep him on the bench in the event Morrow were to need a replacement. I therefore find myself joining the "play the players in their best position" camp, advocating to keep Morrow on the left come Thursday evening.
Centre Back- Damien Perquis (if healthy) and Josh Williams.
Here's the clear problem spot for Toronto FC. While many of the squad's central defenders are perfectly serviceable as off-the-bench options, no two players have proven to be consistent starters that the team can depend on.
The eye test would seem to indicate that Perquis can be the best of all our centre backs when he's on his game- unfortunately he seems to be a 1 in 2 or 1 in 3 type player. Perquis is also still nursing a nagging hamstring injury, and questionable for Thursday's match.
Josh Williams has appeared to be the most consistent of the bunch (and possibly best value) - however he's best positioned as a #2 centre back under the leadership and guidance of a more seasoned veteran. Plus, as we all saw on Sunday, he seems to forget about Didier Drogba when Montreal's STAR PLAYER is making a run in Toronto's box. Let's hope Williams improves on his marking, because unfortunately he does appear to be one of our two top options at this point.
Ahmed Kantari would be the most likely to fill in for Perquis (if injured) or Williams (if deemed incompetent), although he too has looked positionally unaware in Toronto's backline. Nick Hagglund has appeared to fall out of favor with head coach Greg Vanney, while Vanney's nephew Eriq Zavaleta erased the promise he showed in some of his early matches with sloppy mistakes and inconsistent performances, before being relegated to #4 on the depth chart.
Here's the interesting question- what do the stats say about our central defenders? Which one of them is... how to put this... the least awful?
Disregarding whoscored.com's weaknesses, the numbers from the stat-tracking website paint an interesting picture. The same defender leads Toronto FC both in most clearances and most shots blocked per 90 minutes. I'll give you a second to guess who that is... and time's up: It's TFC's very own lost boy, Nick Hagglund.
Josh Williams also puts on a decent show statistically, leading the team in interceptions per game while coming in second out of all defenders in tackles per 90 (although he is dribbled past the most as well). Perquis comes second in both interceptions and clearances, while Kantari executes the most tackles per game of the bunch. Of course Kantari also commits the most fouls.
So the stats would basically lay out the following: Williams is good at getting in the way, intercepting passes and making a lot of tackles. Or at least he's good at being in the way, because attackers also dribble by him astonishingly frequently.
Kantari is a bit of a pit bull on the field, taking opponents down the most but also getting called for quite a few infractions. Hagglund is effective at using his larger frame to block shots and his reach to clear the ball away, while Perquis basically does a bit of everything. And Zavaleta- well he doesn't really show up at all.
It's almost tempting to ask Vanney to suit up Hagglund again, and see how the kid does taking on the big bad Didier Drogba. But with both Hagglund and Zavaleta prone to "young player" mistakes, it's probably best to keep them off the pitch for a match of such magnitude.
Right Back- Jackson
As much as I don't want to admit it, I agree with Greg Vanney here. Josh Williams might also be a serviceable option if Vanney chooses to start two others in the middle, but Jackson has done better than any other... experiments (see Delgado, Marky) in attempting to make the spot his own.
Jackson is still often over-aggressive in his challenges, and could be a liability with renowned card distributor Baldomero Toledo officiating. However more often than not Jackson's willingness to get stuck in, ability to push the ball up-field on counter attacks, and tendency to support or even join in TFC's midfield (usually without sacrificing the right side of the pitch), have been significant assets to the Reds as of late.
Midfield (diamond)- Cheyrou, Osorio (left), Bradley, Delgado (right)
Most would agree with 3 out of 4 of the selections here. Osorio has quietly had a very effective season, racking up a goal and seven assists while frequently wowing fans with his ability to keep the ball away from defenders (boy can dangle). Cheyrou is our anchor at the bottom of the diamond, and will likely be asked to drop even further to help defenders pick up Drogba's movement when the Impact have possession. Bradley has truly made the position of attacking midfielder his own, leading counter attacking opportunities up the middle of the field while also timing very effective runs to support the strikers.
But what about that right side of the pitch? Time to put the Findley experiment to bed, Greg (although he won't).
If we were on the road against the Seattle Sounders in a regular season match, Collen Warner's defensive attributes would make him the ideal candidate to fill out the midfield, although the formation would likely change to allow for two holding midfielders in that case.
But Vanney knows that in Montreal, Toronto FC will need goals. That would make the three obvious candidates: Marky Delgado, Robbie Findley, and Herculez Gomez.
Findley has been underwhelming Toronto fans for far too long now, clearly demonstrating that Bob Bradley must have been hanging out with Rob Ford when he named Findley to the US World Cup squad in 2010. I was personally shocked to find out that Findley has actually tallied two goals and three assists this season- but when you consider that only adds up to a goal every eight games played and an assist every five (or a ‘point' of some sort every 3.28 games), it's time to sit the veteran down.
Speaking of veterans, a better option may be Herculez Gomez- TFC's wild card. I call him wild card not because other teams have no idea what to expect, but because Toronto FC themselves still don't seem to know what he's capable of (I know fans sure as hell are confused). With Gomez averaging a goal every two and a half games (1 goal in 223 minutes on the pitch) and having a history as a big game player, I would peg him as the #2 option to fill in on the right side of the pitch.
My #1 option is Marky Delgado. To be fair, Marky's numbers are similar to Findley's- Delgado has contributed 3 goals and 3 assists but played more minutes (averaging out to a goal and an assist every 6 and change games, or a ‘point' every 3). But Delgado has also played a number of those games in the back four, namely at right fullback.
It's the eye test that really seals the deal for Delgado. At the young age of 20, he undoubtedly brings more energy to the pitch than either of the veterans- ideal for an outside position where you're expected to run up and join the attack when necessary, while also tracking back to help the fullbacks (especially with Venegas and Oduro as Montreal's forward wings).
Delgado has more key passes per game than either Findley or Gomez, and is unsurprisingly better across defensive categories, most notably tackles and interceptions per 90. The youngster showed some moments of brilliance earlier this season, particularly when deployed as an attacking mid, and if he can bring that same attacking mindset to the right side of the pitch, TFC could ignite the offensive outburst they'll likely need in order to defeat the Impact on the road.
FORWARDS- Jozy Altidore & Sebastian Giovinco
Very little needs to be said here. One huge perk of starting Delgado in the midfield? Having Gomez and/or Findley (but please not Findley) available to come off the bench should a striker go down *KNOCK ON EVERY PIECE OF WOOD AROUND*, or for attacking reinforcements when Toronto undoubtedly needs it in the dying moments of the match.
Giovinco and Altidore are bona fide starters. They're also the two players who came together to score Toronto FC's only goal this past Sunday. The fate of TFC's season rests in their hands- if the Atomic Ant can handle being triple-teamed better than Dider Drogba can, we may just see another match at BMO Field before Bitchy migrates to Medieval Times for the winter (that's where she goes, right??).
Now you be the Vanney- who should start on Thursday?