On the biggest night - until next week - in their history, Toronto FC’s game plan went out the window.
“Nothing went how we would have liked tonight,” Michael Bradley said after the Reds had come back from 3-0 down to score two away goals and take a manageable one-goal deficit out of the first leg of their Eastern Conference final against the Montreal Impact.
“Nothing went how we planned, nothing went the way we prepared - but that’s football sometimes, and you don’t get anywhere if you can’t play on those days.”
“I think we played into their hands a little bit,” Drew Moor added.
TFC knew exactly what was coming at the Olympic Stadium, and yet Montreal’s notorious counter-attacking style was as devastating as ever.
They had even experienced a version of it a year earlier, when Montreal raced into a 3-0 lead they were able to hold on to in the Eastern knockout round. A big problem for Toronto on that occasion was their inability to pick up Patrice Bernier, who was given license to leave his two midfield partners and find space between the Reds’ defence and midfield.
Twelve months on, Bernier set up Dominic Oduro’s opening goal before 10 minutes had passed by doing precisely the same thing.
No Toronto player was close enough to Hassoun Camara to challenge the first pass. No one picked up Bernier in time, and there was space for him to operate in because the Toronto defence had dropped off. Nick Hagglund was caught between trying to cut out Bernier’s pass and cover Oduro, and ended up doing neither.
Last year, Bernier was so effective because he was able to tear right through the middle of Toronto’s 4-4-2 formation, with Montreal’s 4-3-3 leaving Bradley and Benoit Cheyrou overmatched in midfield. This time around, Greg Vanney will probably have been hoping that TFC’s 3-5-2 setup would allow Bradley to track Bernier in his deeper role while Jonathan Osorio and Armando Cooper applied pressure higher up the field.
I wrote about the importance of Osorio and Cooper before the match but what I did not anticipate was the effect of the Olympic Stadium pitch. Its size made it impossible for the two of them to close off passing lanes as they had done against New York City, leaving Bradley firefighting exactly as he had been in 2015. The Yankee Stadium field looks miniature in comparison:
As soon as this became apparent, Toronto could have eased their attempts to win the ball high up the field and had Cooper drop in alongside Bradley to form a two-man shield that better filled the vast space. Vanney spotted it - “[Bernier] was forcing our back three to have to adjust a little bit, and if we picked up the run then it was freeing up the wingers” - but before he had time to really take in what he was seeing and make a change, Montreal had turned their first two chances into a 2-0 lead.
Eventually, Will Johnson came on for Cooper, tucked in next to Bradley and Toronto had a much more stable platform from which they were able to get themselves back into the tie.
As much as that was a fundamental issue, however, TFC’s problems were otherwise as much a combination of circumstances - such as the pitch, which was not only huge but its turf also hard and fast - and execution as they were strategy. Matteo Mancosu’s second goal came about after a dreadful Steven Beitashour clearance gifted the Impact possession in a dangerous area, while Ambroise Oyongo’s third was a potshot Clint Irwin really should have gathered.
That, in an odd way, is a reason for optimism; Toronto dug themselves a hole mostly because they coped with the unusual environment badly and made stupid errors, not because Montreal’s style is their kryptonite.
“We were in third or fourth gear at the start, we weren’t at the speed we wanted,” Vanney said. “Part of that was we were still moving forward, if you will, when the game had already transitioned and was moving the other way, and so we kept finding ourselves on the wrong side of the game.
“We didn’t quite pressure high enough and we didn’t sit deep enough, we were kind of caught in between,” Moor reflected. “They’re looking for the counter-attack like we talked about and we just got caught out a couple of times, some miscommunication - stuff that really can’t happen at this point.”
There is no need to tear up the 3-5-2, which was so effective against New York City; simply asking Cooper - or Johnson - to operate in a more withdrawn role and playing at BMO Field, rather than in the Olympic Stadium pinball machine, should make a big difference.
In other areas, in fact, the 3-5-2 combated Montreal’s biggest threats rather well. Ignacio Piatti, for example, did not have a shot on target, with the work of the Steven Beitashour-Eriq Zavaleta double team up against him blotted only by Beitashour’s unnecessary, costly error. Mancosu scored with his only shot, and no outfield starter on either team had fewer touches of the ball.
Montreal are a genuine threat to win the MLS Cup because they are capable of capitalising on their opponents’ mistakes like that, but in this case such a wild, unpredictable game felt like a one-off. “They worked really hard to get some of the bounces to go their way in the first 60, 65 minutes,” Moor said. “I don’t think they’re going to be able to do that for another 90 minutes at our place but we have to be relentless, we have to start better, we have to stay organized at the back and obviously take our chances when we get them.”