If there is ever a good time to concede three goals at home against one of your main competitors, Sunday was probably it for Toronto FC.
Though a victory would have been valuable in the chase for the Supporters’ Shield, the Reds’ main regular-season target - a return to the playoffs - is all but in the bag. Jozy Altidore ensured they avoided defeat to the New York Red Bulls anyway by continuing his rich vein of goalscoring form.
“It was a good dry run for us because maybe it is a team that we face down the road again,” Altidore said.
Better to make a few mistakes now than at the end of October.
New York was a particularly interesting team for Toronto to face as a playoff warmup due to their notorious high press. It caused Greg Vanney’s team a number of problems as they fell behind 2-0 and then 3-1, but not for the first time this season the Red Bulls ran out of steam and did not look as comfortable falling back into a deeper defensive position.
Toronto made a decent start to the match but once New York found some rhythm without the ball, the issues began. Interestingly, Fox Sports’ sideline microphones revealed that Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch wanted to target Marky Delgado as a defensive weak link in the Toronto midfield. During a break in play, Marsch urged Sacha Kljestan to “make sure everyone knows” they should route attacks down their right because Vanney had switched Delgado to the left side of the midfield diamond.
It paid off almost immediately. With Justin Morrow having advanced into the opposition half, Delgado was pressed in a vulnerable position by Alex Muyl and misplaced a pass intended for Altidore.
Sensing the potential overload, Bradley Wright-Phillips pulls out to the right to occupy Drew Moor and Felipe advances from midfield. With Michael Bradley having to keep an eye on Kljestan and Morrow caught upfield, Delgado is in trouble.
The move ends with Steven Beitashour turning into his own net and with a goal under their belts and the wind under their sails, New York’s pressing only became more intense.
Toronto had two main issues: a lack of structure in playing out from the back and the inability of Bradley to keep tabs on Kljestan, who was superb for the first two-thirds of the game. Problem one is visible in the first image above; the pass Delgado tries was never going to be easy on his weaker foot, but he attempts it because there is not a more obvious option available.
Thanks to Fox listening in, we know that Vanney was emphasising that his team needed to be “more connected” in the first half, and he was right. The below screenshot comes later in the half and is not from Toronto playing out of defence, but illustrates their shortcomings in this regard perfectly.
If it looks like all six Toronto players in shot besides Delgado are walking, that’s because they were. Delgado does not help himself and keeps retreating instead of driving towards the touchline, but once again he lacks a safe passing option. He ends up losing possession and Daniel Royer plays Wright-Phillips in on goal for a chance that probably should have ended the game.
The most glaring giveaway, of course, came from Eriq Zavaleta. There is not much to draw on in excusing him - it was a bad error - but Toronto essentially just knocks the ball short with no build-up structure in place. If multiple players are not in position to receive a pass, the best-case scenario against a side like New York is an inaccurate long clearance under pressure.
Then there was the Bradley problem. Toronto’s captain played an instrumental role in getting them back into the game with a goal shortly before half-time, but he struggled to keep track of Kljestan throughout. The worst example came in the move that led to New York’s third goal, during which he simply did not pick the midfielder up despite the obvious danger.
That all paints a negative picture, but in between the errors Toronto were regularly breaking through the press and with a little more care - at both ends of the pitch - the first half could have been a very different story. Their best moments came when Altidore came short to allow the midfielders to run beyond him.
Altidore’s lay-off to Delgado leaves no fewer than seven New York players on the wrong side of the ball, and Delgado’s subsequent quick pass forwards takes Sean Davis (No. 27) out of the game for good measure. Jordan Hamilton did a good job of making runs into the channels on the break and this particular move was the best of three or four that resulted in excellent scoring chances.
Finally, a situation to sum up both sides of the game.
If Will Johnson turns, slips the ball right to Beitashour or lays it off to Bradley here, Toronto has the chance to take New York’s entire midfield out of the game straight from kick-off with a through pass. The visitors’ press worked exactly how they hoped it would on the day, but if the Reds can learn the lessons of this match there is no reason to believe they will be unable to solve it if the two teams meet again this season.