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TFC Notebook: It’s time to free the young guns

What do Toronto FC need to improve or reestablish in order to find success in the 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs?

(Photo By Toronto FC/Twitter)

TORONTO, Canada—Toronto FC are back in the postseason for the fifth time in six seasons as Greg Vanney’s side finished a very respectable second place in Major League Soccer (MLS) in 2020 despite having to overcome the unique challenges of a global pandemic.

Against the odds, The Reds were in the Supporters’ Shield hunt until the very end, and up until Oct. 24 (a month ago), the club had a clear identity, looking like the team to beat in MLS. But then came the infamous injury bug, and questionable performances began piling up just as quickly as the list of names of the team injury report.

And while health and fitness may (rightfully so) be the major talking point heading into Tuesday’s first postseason match, that does overshadow the fact that Toronto FC have stumbled over the finish line here, losing three of their last four matches to close the regular season after dropping just two games prior. Beyond the points, the team has struggled to score, finding the back of the net more than once just one time in their last eight contests.

So, let’s discuss. Aside from getting Pablo Piatti, Justin Morrow, and Marky Delgado back fit, what can the Reds do in order to find success in this year’s MLS Cup Playoffs?

Here’s my latest TFC Notebook.

Play more direct against the press

SOCCER: NOV 08 MLS - Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls
November 08: Toronto FC midfielder Ralph Priso (97) controls the ball during the second half of TFC vs New York Red Bulls

We know how good this team can be, and they’re honestly not that far away.

Recently, opponents have been opting to press Toronto FC—and to high effect. Before this recent slump, and especially earlier in the season, other teams weren’t able to recklessly put pressure on the Reds without being carved up. But why all of a sudden is a pretty straight-forward style of play so effective?

Perhaps it’s a confidence issue? Toronto, who rank fifth in MLS in keeping possession according to FB Ref, have been content with playing the simple pass. So much so that, more times than not, TFC will break the first or second line of defence just to go backwards again to the safe option, allowing their opponents to simply reset their 11-man press.

Maybe fitness levels around MLS are increasing as the season wares on, or perhaps it’s the product of a lack of speed on the wing therefore limiting Toronto’s ability to counter attack with pace, but I think the club’s most recent match against the New York Red Bulls underlined a much more optimistic resolution:

At times, the team needs to take more risk and play more direct.

Queue 18 year old Ralph Priso...

It’s time to free the young guns

When Priso checked into the game against the Red Bulls for Jonathan Osorio at halftime, it shifted the tide of the match. Toronto FC were all of a sudden finding space in behind Red Bulls defenders thanks to the homegrown player’s ability to play between the lines, something the team has lacked in the centre of the park since the loss of Delgado to injury.

“Ralph, I thought came on and found the speed of the game immediately,” said Vanney, after the club’s decision day finale. “He played some beautiful passes between lines that started attacks, his capacity to cover ground and get into the challenge and recover balls, you know I thought—I said several weeks ago—that he’s ready and he’s proven it in all of his performances so far that he’s ready to compete at this level. He has all the tools, and he’s just going to be getting better and better as he gets more experience and more opportunity.”

“I thought again tonight in what was a challenging game, he helped us turn the tide of the game...”

Priso has shown that he’s not afraid of the moment. With Delgado expected to be sidelined for Tuesday’s first playoff game, don’t be surprised to hear the 18-year-old homegrown signing’s name be called as one of the first off the bench.

Keeping that same sort of energy...

End the Endoh experiment

SOCCER: NOV 08 MLS - Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls

I understand a rejuvenated Tsubasa Endoh had a great playoff run last season, and I get why Vanney is eager to get him going, but are there others capable of doing more in less?

Enter Jayden Nelson.

“Jayden has come on in the last few games and I think his competitive spirit and willingness to run and work and compete has really risen over the past few weeks,” Vanney told media. “I think he’s still choosing the right play in the right moment sometimes, his over eagerness to try and make things happen is just something he’s going to get better at with experience, but he’s out there and he’s trying to make a difference, and he has a lot of different tools in his toolbox to impact games...”

The talented winger recently turned 18 years old, but despite his age, I don’t think any one would argue against the 2019 Canadian Youth Player of the Year’s technical ability.

Endoh, 27, meanwhile, seems more like a safe bet if you’re Vanney, but without much upside; when the former MLS SuperDraft first-round pick plays well, it’s generally a product of the team playing well and not vice-versa. So while I do understand the need to resort to experience and what you know in the past—especially in a win-or-go-home game—Nelson is a gamebreaker who has shown that he is not afraid of the moment.

Even at this age, his upside, in my opinion, is greater than that of Endoh, so perhaps it is time to start taking risks.

And it’s not like there aren’t other youngsters making a significant impact across the league right now. 17 year old Caden Clark scored for the New York Red Bulls in their 3-2 postseason loss to the Columbus Crew, while 17 year old Ricardo Pepi scored a 93rd minute game-tying goal for FC Dallas before they eventually won in penalties.

The blueprint for success is there, and with Piatti expected to be available on Tuesday, I’d lean towards giving the remaining minutes to a gamebreaker in Nelson as opposed to a safe choice in Endoh if the Reds find themselves in need of a goal.

Akinola-Altidore partnership is not working

Toronto FC v New England Revolution - MLS Is Back Tournament

How much have Toronto FC missed Jozy Altidore this season?

Well, the club’s goal-scoring woes have been well documented. In fact, just one time in their past eight matches have the Reds scored more than once, a 2-1 win over Inter Miami on Nov. 1.

With the team struggling to find the back of the net, reincorporating their star striker back into the mix only makes sense.

But with Altidore only netting twice in 13 games this season, the overarching narrative becomes at what cost?

With Altidore (and even Achara) sidelined, it was another young gun who stepped up to the plate as 20 year old Ayo Akinola filled the massive void left behind by the strong No. 17, finding the back of the net an impressive nine times in fifteen games, leading the league in goals per 90.

Looking back, undoubtedly Akinola has been more effective that Altidore this season. So with both players available and vying for playing time, what’s the solution?

Ideally, having both Altidore and Akinola on the field does in theory makes the most sense. TFC are more of a threat to score with both guys on the pitch, but in reality, in the (albeit brief) time that they’ve spent on the field together, it hasn’t worked, at all. They’re two target strikers that are like-for-like attackers that occupy the same space on the pitch, with neither really capable of playing on the wing.

In a weird way, the Reds are almost easier to defend with both players on the pitch, as the problem hasn’t been finishing chances; it’s been creating them.

For instance, at the start of the second half against the New York Red Bulls when Toronto FC began to play more direct, the team created goal-scoring chance after goal-scoring chance, nearly equalizing within 10 minutes. And then Altidore came on for a winger in Endoh in the 57th minute, and from that point onwards, the team created little-to-nothing moving forward. Their shaped changed and so did their style of play.

So again, for me, the solution is to free the youngster in Akinola and give him the start on his own, only bringing Altidore off the bench if Vanney wants to make a like-for-like substitution.

I think trying to make them both work at this point is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

Re-establish an identity; try to score first

MLS: Montreal Impact at Toronto FC

It sounds cliché at times, but towards the end of the season, in a way, Toronto FC really did lose their identity. From a fan perspective, we didn’t know what team we were about to witness take the field, and I think the players felt the same way.

“We’re trying to do a lot of different things at once, we’re trying to get guys who have been injured back, sharp and fit and going,” reflected Michael Bradley following the club’s 2-1 Decision Day loss. “We’re trying to still win games and we’re still trying to understand that as we get ready for the playoffs, making sure we understand the type of team we need to be, the way we need to play that is going to give us the best chance.”

The latter part of Bradley’s comments from the beginning of the month stood out to me: ‘The team is still trying to understand the type of team they need to be, the way that they need to play that is going to give them the best chance.’

I’m curious as to what the solution to that answer is. What is going to give Toronto FC the best chance to win? Are they a possession-based team? Do they strive on the counter-attack? Are they difficult to play against through the midfield? Difficult to break down? A high-tempo club? Do they play through their wings or do they like to go down the middle?

Regardless of the answer, whatever version of themselves Toronto FC want to implement, it’s imperative that they establish it early, and if they do, they’ll have a good shot at advancing because when the Reds find a way to score first, they are unbeaten in 2020, owning an overall record of 10W-0L-3D.

The problem with that is that they haven’t scored first in their past four outings.

That being said, as we know, the postseason is a different breed, and on that note, it’s time to wipe the slate clean.

“One of the great parts of our success over the years has been the ability to adapt to different types of games and find solutions in different games,” wrapped up coach Vanney.

“Guys are excited to get going. They’ve waited all year for the playoffs and the moment is upon us.”