International breaks are among the many small factors in a season that are barely considered or planned for but can have a significant, if sometimes unnoticed, effect. For teams in form and on a roll, they kill momentum; for others out of sync or stretched thin by injuries, they provide a welcome relief.
Toronto FC will be hoping the latter is the case when they return from the latest stoppage in Montreal on Sunday. The Reds welcome Sebastian Giovinco and Jay Chapman back into contention after injury having had two weeks to put the stinging 2-1 defeat to D.C. United to the back of their minds. Where a quick turnaround may have led to a reactionary decision or two on the part of Greg Vanney, the coach has had a fortnight to consider with a clear head what went wrong during the club’s winless four-game home stand.
Vanney is not the only one. Here are three things we think should be on his mind ahead of the latest 401 Derby:
1. It’s time to settle on a best starting XI
You can understand, to an extent, Vanney’s tinkering here over the past few weeks. It was useful, for example, to give Steven Beitashour a break and get some minutes under Mark Bloom’s belt in case of emergency. Similarly, it makes sense to give Jordan Hamilton and Mo Babouli a chance to demonstrate that they could be dangerous impact substitutes in the playoffs while Giovinco is unavailable.
Other recent personnel decisions, however, have been more confusing. Nick Hagglund has outplayed Eriq Zavaleta in the battle to partner Drew Moor, but Vanney doesn’t seem to want to commit to him as a starter. Daniel Lovitz does not look ready for the MLS level, but is consistently tried as a kind of utility option on the left-hand side.
When the pace of matches goes up a notch in the playoffs, a lack of familiarity will breed the kind of errors and indecision that decide games. Vanney, to be fair, has indicated that he knows now is the time to nail down his best XI - or, at least, the 12 or 13 players he will lean on. “We have a very good sense of our group and who’s going to [play] down the stretch,” he said.
That means Clint Irwin in goal, Hagglund alongside Moor and Will Johnson partnering Armando Cooper in midfield as soon as the former is healthy. That lineup can go toe-to-toe with any in the league, but it needs as much time together as possible in these final two games to find a rhythm.
2. Go back to basics
At the beginning of the 2016 season, a Toronto team scarred by the experience of their first-ever playoff game set out to ensure that trauma would never be repeated.
Before a ball had been kicked that meant acquiring three defensive veterans in Irwin, Beitashour and Moor, but Vanney did not simply rely on new personnel to improve the league’s leakiest backline. Michael Bradley was moved into a holding-midfield role to add another layer of protection and the outlook of the entire team was more cautious.
It worked, and the Reds came out of a daunting road trip during the renovation of BMO Field with a more-than-respectable three wins, two draws and three defeats, conceding more than one goal in only two of those matches. When one or both of Giovinco or Jozy Altidore is in the lineup, Toronto is probably going to score; the trick is to keep them out at the other end.
Unfortunately, that is something they have struggled with of late. Toronto has played a much more aggressive, attacking game in order to compensate for Giovinco’s absence, but it has left them exposed to counter-attacks and diminished their own talent for quick, direct breaks upfield. We have seen brief examples of how unsuited Toronto is to this style of play when they have played against 10 men (or fewer) this season.
In the long term, of course, the Reds should look to improve in this regard rather than ignore the problem. For now, though, they are better off playing to their strengths - particularly as a defensive, counter-attacking outlook can be very effective in the postseason.
3. Develop a Cooper-Giovinco connection
Cooper was excellent against D.C. United despite the defeat and is already surpassing the cautious expectations most had for him as a versatile depth player.
The Panamanian has demonstrated an ability to thread through the kind of passes from deep positions that both Giovinco and Altidore feast upon, setting up TFC’s only goal against D.C. with one such ball. In the small sample size we have of him in a Toronto shirt so far, Cooper has played 12.8 passes into the final third per 90 minutes of play; that’s noticeably more than Johnson (6.6 per 90) and Marky Delgado (8.7), the two usual incumbents of the two shuttling central-midfield positions.
That, as alluded to above, is a crucial skill in the context of this team; finding a quick, safe passage for the ball to the strikers before the opposition has had time to settle into a defensive shape has been one of the hallmarks of the Reds at their best.