Disconnected passes. Early 2-0 deficit. Uneasy defending. Damien Perquis with that deer-in-the-headlights "where should I go?" look on his face as he looks to get his bearings down; there was a collective sigh spelling, "Same old, TFC" during the first half of Toronto FC's last game against New York City FC.
"That's so TFC."
Then all of a sudden, Toronto started to gain a foothold in the game and you're thinking, "That's interesting." Soon enough, Perquis scores just before half-time and momentum is entirely swinging their way. 45 minutes later and the Reds have stolen a point out of New York City.
Let's revisit last year's first fixture between New York City FC and Toronto. The Reds also went down 2-0 that day, also thanks to a pair of David Villa goals. The rest of that game was marred by Toronto players great distaste for the referee, as Sebastian Giovinco is grabbed, kicked and chokeslammed. Off the ball, on the ball, whatever the case was, City players were literally taking a piece out of Giovinco when they could. City wanted the game to be a stop-start affair and to kill any rhythm the high octane offense they were facing.
Post game, Greg Vanney was infuriated, Perquis tried to kill City's Ned Grabovoy, and no media member dare wanted to approach Perquis post game in the dressing room (especially after he smashed his locker door). Perquis was livid about an elbow he received from Andrew Jacobsen, and Michael Bradley offered a condescending response towards the New York side's tactics, "Everybody gets a chance to play for 90 minutes, everybody is free to go about it how they want. That was their way to go about it today.... We will be ready (for the next game against NYCFC)." There was no comeback that day.
Toronto forgot to realize that they put in an underwhelming performance last year against City. They played into City's hands, and struggled to outsmart the opposition. Instead, all that the leadership and head coach could talk about was factors they could not control- refereeing decisions.
This time Toronto also faced an injustice when they conceded the second goal, which should have been called back for a handball on Villa. However, Toronto FC regrouped, stuck to the game-plan and fought through adversity. There was no complaining and frustration directed at the referee, and Giovinco soldiered on to help get them the point they needed. Heck, Perquis even scored a goal!
Demonstrating character? Yes. That has been much talked about. However, there is a sense of growth displayed by a team that could not stop complaining less than a year ago due to a refereeing decision.
Last Sunday, Greg Vanney held his cool, adjusted his formation to be able to match the numbers City had in midfield, and his disciplined team took it from there. A player like Perquis, whose entire game was littered with errors last season, was able to bounce back from a disappointing first 20 minutes to have a commanding performance for the rest of the game. That is the type of determination a mature team possesses.
Michael Bradley? He's sacrificed personal gain for team success. Last year, Bradley looked fully dedicated in his attacking midfield role and did not seem entirely interested and active when he had to play a deeper role in midfield. I'm not saying he didn't work hard enough in a holding midfield position, because Bradley is a dedicated leader, but he didn't seem fully comfortable to defend and sit back. Bradley seemed more interested to storm down the park. Thus far this season, the numbers suggest Bradley is embracing his defensive role.
The Toronto FC captain's average position on the pitch has been that of a second or third central defender. In fact, last game, Bradley featured as a center-back, with Perquis drifting to right-back, and Steven Beitashour playing as a right-sided midfielder.
The proof is not just in the positioning. All last year, Bradley committed an average of three defensive plays a game. In the first two games this year, that number has increased to ten. Its clear that Bradley has been asked to be an important defensive piece, and his numbers show that he is playing a key role in keeping the games low scoring. Bradley's passing numbers are still solid with a 73% passing rate, and he is still creating two attacking chances per game. The captain has set the rhythm for the entire team, as a more responsible and mature Toronto FC side are committing 15 more defensive actions per game than they did last season.
Another aspect that demonstrates growth in the young Toronto season is the commitment to the game plan regardless of where the game is going. Even though Toronto surrendered a two-goal lead to start the game against City, their statistics resembled the game against the Red Bulls. The number of interceptions, clearances, chance creations, passing percentages, and possession numbers for both games were almost identical. After Toronto FC settled, they followed their original game plan of defending behind the ball and catching City on the counter.
Teams do not become championship contenders after adding two stars. Growth, fighting through adversity, sacrifice for the team, and synergy grows winners. Toronto FC may not be a side that are championship material just yet, but the early symptoms suggest they are moving in that direction.