Season IX – 2015; Match 1
Part One was posted yesterday, looking at Vancouver's Lineup and Form heading into Saturday's match.
Beginning with the familiar, Vancouver still poses several of those threats that saw them into the playoffs in a hard-fought Western Conference last season.
In attack they have a plethora of speed, Kekuta Manneh, Erik Hurtado, Darren Mattocks. Any one of those three has enough pace to trouble even the most sturdy of defenses; in combination they can make even the most hearty defenders quake in their boots.
Two of those three have shown real glimpses of quality in the preseason. Manneh had several mazey runs against San Jose, one of which resulted in a lovely goal, after a devastating cut to slice open the Earthquake back-line:
Entering his third season in the league and still just twenty years of age, he is dangerous and must be watched carefully.
Mattocks too, a player whose estimation of himself seldom matches his on-field production, has looked good, collecting a brace against Norwegian side Stabaek. The first came from the penalty spot, but it was the second that will prove more instructional for the concerned TFC faithful: capping off a blistering, devastating counterattack. Nicolas Mezquida sprayed a long cross-field ball to Ben McKendry, who spotted an intelligent hooking run from the Jamaican sprinter down the left, slipping him into space to finish:
After a spotty rookie season, Mattocks, who has played with a chip on his shoulder since Montreal slighted him by selecting Andrew Wenger first overall in the 2012 SuperDraft, showed some genuine signs of growth and magnanimity with some unselfish play and good, old-fashioned hard work. He dallied with a few European clubs in the off-season, but this could be the season he breaks out, if he finds the consistency and form required to maintain a spot in the starting lineup.
With that in mind, it is worth noting that Mattocks could have scored a bundle that night, passing on a variety of chances, forced to settle for a brace.
If there is one concern with the new and improved TFC 9.0, it is that there is a lack of pace at the back, especially with the full-backs pushing up-field to join the attack. Steven Caldwell, Damien Perquis, Michael Bradley, and Benoit Cheyrou; not a one renown for their fleetness of foot – even with Nick Hagglund included, the average speed only raises a blip.
Toronto will have to be very alert, using their superior experience to foresee those potential threats and forestall them with early invention.
Speed is nice, but it has little effect without the ball, more specifically that which poses the danger is Vancouver's ability to move the ball into the open areas, thus utilizing that quickness to greater effect. It was Mezquida who sprung the attack in Portland, but come Saturday the man who will be central to Vancouver's attack will be last season's Newcomer of the Year, Pedro Morales.
The Chilean was the primary force to Vancouver's forward momentum last season, racking up ten goals and twelve assists. Nominally an attacking midfielder, what makes Morales such a bothersome opponent is his ability to drift and find space. Whether dropping back, only to surge forward late, or pushing into space, then holding up play, that vision and patience to survey the field and make the best play, not just the most readily available one is the concern that must be countered.
Carl Robinson has already made two requests of his side as the season kicks off. The first is to get more goals from midfield, setting a target of some 25 over the course of the season – Vancouver's 42 total goals last season were the fewest scored by a playoff-bound team.
The other gauntlet thrown was directly to Morales, who Robinson tasked with scoring directly from a free-kick, one feat he was not able to accomplish in 2014, but one he has already performed this preseason, sneaking one in from a tight angle past Victoria.
Toronto will have to be very cautious about conceding free-kicks in dangerous areas.
Making that threat all the more of a concern is the added consideration of Vancouver's hulking centre-backs making a nuisance of themselves on set-pieces. Pa Modou Kah scored two headers leading into the season – including this bullet against his former club Portland:
Both he and Kendall Waston – who scored the towering header that saw them into the playoffs - are big targets and have a knack for getting on the end of service from either Morales, or Mauro Rosales, who whipped in the ball for Kah's finish above.
Added to those familiar threats is a shadow of the unknown. Octavia Rivero, their big off-season acquisition, is a bit of a mystery. One can watch clips from South America, or the grainy footage from preseason action – Rivero was the Whitecaps leading scorer with three goals and an assist – but it will be some time before a proper dossier on him can be written.
What can be said is that both goals against New England were confident finishes, holding off a defender to stab in a Matias Laba through-ball with a lunge for the first, before rounding the keeper to calmly slot home the second:
Morales provided the through-ball for his somewhat lucky finish against Victoria.
Look for him to poke and prod the Toronto back-line, sniffing for chances to break onto a threaded-pass. From limited action, he appears to favour that left-hand side – all three goals, more-or-less, came from that side – and Toronto's right-sided centre-back, whether Steven Caldwell or Nick Hagglund, will have their hands full with the Uruguayan.
Robinson offered this estimation of the man and what he expects from the young designated player: "Hopefully goals. It's the hardest thing to do in football unfortunately, and that's why they're paid more money than probably anyone else on the pitch. Watching Octavio, he's what you want in a modern day forward. You want someone who's mobile, someone who can hold the ball up, someone who can run in behind and someone who can score goals and he fits into that category very well."
Clearly there is a lot to contend with in quelling a potentially rampant Vancouver attack. Fortunately, on the other side of the ball, there are some weaknesses on which to focus, but seeing how even in preseason they conceded just seven goals through eight matches – they scored twice as many, thanks largely to the romp in Victoria, it is easier said than done.
The primary means of exposing Vancouver will be in testing that back-line. Replacing one centre-back of the calibre of Andy O'Brien – in terms of poise and experience mostly – is a near-impossible task, but relying on several new options to man that position and have it running at peak efficiency already is not possible. Waston came in last season and Kah has some MLS experience, but they are both very aggressive, which has its positives and negatives.
Ideally one wants a stopper and a snuffer at the back, the stopper's job is to press the ball, be physical, jump into challenges and be the one to confront the ball-carrier to slow the route to goal. The snuffer, for lack of a better term, is tasked with reading the play, allowing his teammate to handle that initial contact while he sizes up the situation in hope of preventing the next pass from causing problems.
Both Kah and Waston are seconds away from a yellow card, and Toronto needs to force them into rash challenges, while being prepared to leap over any overly zealous ones.
A by-product of a defensive core – Kah, Waston, and David Ousted, the keeper – still getting acquainted is that Vancouver struggled mightily to defend set-pieces. San Jose's goal, scored by Paulo Renato was the result of a headed corner kick; it was the second (at least, video being what it is) in a series of corners, the first of which was met by a similarly free Adam Jahn header, requiring Ousted to tip it over the bar.
Jermaine Taylor's goal for Houston came from an equally problematic mix up, Ousted coming out for a ball and missing, the loose rebound falling to Taylor for a simple placed into the gaping net:
Paolo Tornaghi was similarly forced into a huge save against Stabaek and Ousted was called upon again to make a leaping denial of Chicago's Kennedy Igboananike, on the end of a Shaun Maloney delivery, in their final preseason test. Picking up runners and winning defensive headers has looked a concern.
With that in mind, TFC's game plan should involve bottling up the midfield to prevent Morales from dominating, while also limiting Rivero's ability to get on the end of through-balls, forcing Vancouver outside. Speed is deadly out there, but without the full range of service it can be contained, and forcing a rushed or inaccurate ball can lead to turnovers, which, especially if the Whitecap full-backs have pushed forward, can lead to gaping holes that can be exploited.
In such a plan, Toronto must make use of those wide areas – not a particular strength as of yet – but in gaining that ground they will allow Jozy Altidore to pick apart that splintered Vancouver back-line with some charging runs or clever movement. Utilizing width will also open up the some central spaces within which Sebastian Giovinco can operate.
One final consideration. Do not be afraid to shoot from distance.
Another consequence of Vancouver's still coalescing back-line and both Waston and Kah being stoppers, is that on occcasion neither steps up to challenge the ball, expecting the other to do so, and thus opening space for shots from range. Russell Teibert and Laba are very active in this area, but if they can be caught up-field, the likes of Giovinco, Jonathan Osorio, and Daniel Lovitz could have a field-day running through open space towards goal.
Chicago's late equalizer in the final preseason match offers a glimpse of that potential, as Shahdon Winchester was allow to walk through the Vancouver defenses before blasting home his finish:
Ready for the match yet?
Points of Interest
Last Meeting July 16, 2014 Toronto 1: Vancouver 1
Most recently the two played to a 1-1 draw in Toronto last summer. Darren Mattocks put the Whitecaps in the lead, but Jermain Defoe quickly responded from the penalty spot.
The two also met in the semifinals of the 2014 Voyageurs Cup, TFC winning the first leg 2-1 at home – Defoe and Bradley scoring for the home side and Manneh for the visitors, and the Whitecaps the second by the same scoreline – Hurtado and Morales for Vancouver and Doniel Henry for TFC, leaving it up to penalty kicks to decide who would face Montreal in the final – TFC would win 3-5 with Issey Nakajima-Farran scoring the deciding goal.
In league play, the two have met five previous times, each winning twice and drawing that last meeting. Of note, the home team has never lost in the series, Vancouver winning both in BC and Toronto the first two in Toronto, prior to last season's draw.
Even factoring in the Canadian Championship, a further twelve meetings, there has been only one away win in the all-time series, that coming back in the 2008, their very first meeting, when Vancouver won 0-1 in Toronto on a Martin Nash penalty kick – TFC did advance past Vancouver in last season's edition on penalty kicks at BC Place, but not until after losing the match 2-1.
In random news, Carl Robinson apparently has a fear of flying, which is entirely reasonable, "I’ve had it forever. It’s not something that I advertise because I sweat, I get nervous and things like that. But it is what it is. People have fears."
The 'Caps got all emotive with some Whitecap-themed Valentine's Day cards, which is... and they signed former TFC midfielder Tyler Rosenlund to their USL side, continuing their obsession with former Toronto players.
And this is just plain awesome – Manneh gets ready for kickoff in a candid moment – and it turns out the club in The Gambia that he began his career with in 2009 is called Steve Biko FC, which is equally awesome.