TORONTO, Canada—Let’s look past the ugly for a moment.
Toronto FC returned to the pitch for the first time in over four months Monday morning.
MLS is back. It’s been a long 128 days, but the Reds gave us a fresh 90-plus minutes to dissect, and there was a ton to talk about. So let’s get to it. Here are five things noticed following Toronto FC’s gratifying, yet disappointing 2-2 draw vs. D.C. United.
Players take a knee before kickoff
Before the match, both Toronto FC and D.C. United players and staff joined in unison, taking a knee in protest of racial injustice.
This isn’t the first instance that we’ve seen of players and the league using their platform to spread the Black Lives Matters message. Prior to the match, TFC and D.C. players also wore Black Lives Matters warmup shirts, further raising awareness for the cause.
And again, before the first game of the MLS is Back Tournament, defender Justin Morrow led a group of Black players and staff representing all 24 teams at the competition in a powerful unified protest, a moment he called one of the best in his entire career.
By all accounts, the Reds—led by Morrow and GM Ali Curtis—have been the figureheads of the BLM movement within MLS, and I don’t believe this is the last that we’ll be hearing of it.
Keep setting the bar TFC.
Toronto FC denies tendency to give up late goals
It just all seems too familiar.
Maybe that’s because it is. 49 times in the club’s history Toronto FC have conceded a loss or draw despite carrying a lead past the 85th minute, h/t Martyn Bailey. It’s also the second time in three games this season that TFC have blown a two-goal lead after the club conceded a 95th-minute equalizer vs. the San Jose Earthquakes all the way back on Feb. 29.
When asked about “the team’s tendency” to give up late goals, Michael Bradley and head coach Greg Vanney weren’t having it.
“I’m not sure I’d call it a tendency. It’s a little bit too easy of a conclusion to come to,” said Bradley post-game. “I understand in the first game in San Jose this year we let them back in it with a late equalizer, and then again today.
“The games were separated by four and a half months, a lot of days of no training. We’re angry with ourselves, we’re frustrated. For a team that wants to be as good as we do, for a team that holds itself to the standards that we do, there’s no way you should let a team like that back into the game today.”
Bradley would go on to point out that the San Jose match and this match were months apart, while Vanney was quick to touch on how different these conditions are.
Regardless, Monday’s draw, despite the long gap of time inbetween, felt all too familiar.
Florida heat playing a factor; questions to be asked at CB
Let’s face it. The match changed in the 64th minute when TFC coach Greg Vanney subbed out both centre-backs Chris Mavinga and Omar Gonzalez and brought in Laurent Ciman and Eriq Zavaleta.
It was a decision that had many TFC fans scratching their heads, despite holding a two-goal lead and being a man up. Obviously, the end-result wasn’t pretty and Vanney quickly became the subject to heavy criticism.
However, we learned after the match that the TFC coach’s hands were sort of forced.At a water break around the 60th minute, both Mavinga and Gonzalez had complained that they were cramping up. As a result, Vanney decided to turn to his two backup options. It wasn’t his gameplan, and he obviously wasn’t happy with the end-product, noting that the team lost momentum and possession after making those substitutions.
“...at halftime Justin (Morrow) had some Achilles tendinitis issues, he’s pretty sore,” said Vanney post-game. “And then 10 minutes into the second half, Omar (Gonzalez)’s cramping up. He can’t take another step. Right before the water break Chris (Mavinga) is cramping up. This is the first game in extreme temperatures and the question becomes how much do you really push guys in the first game of the tournament, and your first game in months, and so we went with the changes.
“I thought that really disrupted our ability to start attacks and keep possession of the ball and also, we struggled in some of the transition defending. We committed too many fouls, things like that.”
Is the lack of depth at CB worrying? Beyond Mavinga and Gonzalez, I think Ciman is fine, as he showed last season in the MLS Cup Playoffs, but it’s probably safe to say that one of the kids—Julian Dunn or Rocco Romeo—get a look in the heart of defence before Zavaleta does next time.
Pablo Piatti uses MLS debut to settle in
In his first match since a brief January La Liga appearance for RCD Espanyol on Jan. 22, Toronto FC’s newest designated player Pablo Piatti looked solid, playing 73 minutes of action.
While he didn’t really go at anyone 1v1 or try to take on any defenders, Piatti excelled at keeping possession. He made 36 total passes from the right wing, connecting on 92 per cent of them. He was also only dispossessed twice.
Really good debut from Pablo Piatti operating on the right side. Told me last week he needs more time to feel comfortable on that flank but as a playmaking provider who comes inside he combined well with Pozuelo which could become an excellent partnership Via @StatsZone #tfclive pic.twitter.com/Nz1ORtw9gv— Kristian Jack (@KristianJack) July 13, 2020
Personally, I liked the play of the 31-year-old midfielder, coming off surgery for a partially torn ACL in 2019. Linking up with Pozuelo and Auro Jr. down the right flank, the Reds felt threatening every time he touched the ball in the attacking third.
“Early on, we were trying to figure out the best ways we could use him,” said teammate Michael Bradley on Piatti after the match. “In training we’d use him on the left, and now lately, he’s found a really good way to combine with Auro, with Alejandro Pozuelo, over there on the right side. The three of them have a really good understanding. I think you saw some of that today. As he and we all get fitter and sharper, I think you’ll see more and more of that.”
Overall, Piatti wasn’t trying to do too much in his first game with his new club (as it probably should be); I wonder if we’ll get to see him express himself more in the future, but we’ll keep an eye on him as he continues to settle in. I think he’ll only get better.
The prospect of an attack that includes Piatti, Jozy Altidore, and Pozeulo has me drooling.
Anyone else feel that power rush watching No. 7 and No. 10 line up over the ball for every set piece—Poz with his right and Piatti with his left—knowing that this will be the prospect of free kicks for (hopefully) the course of the season?
I wonder if we see Piatti vs. Montreal.
MOTM: Bradley sharp in first match in over 8 months
With all due respect to the standout performance that Ayo Akinola put forth Monday, Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley was the best player on the pitch for both teams.
He led both teams, by a large margin in touches on the ball (117) and passes made (100). He was also extremely efficient in moving the ball, completing 96 per cent of those passes. Defensively, he led Toronto FC with three tackles.
Bradley’s been telling us that he’s been doing well, putting in the work, and now we’re finally getting to see that translate onto the pitch.
But it’s still hard to believe that Bradley’s last taste of competitive football was over eight months ago, in the MLS Cup Final loss to the Seattle Sounders, because—fresh off ankle surgery—the TFC captain is right back to where he left off, controlling the heart of the midfield.
The 32 year old went the full 90 minutes after the Reds came down with a few knocks. Vanney said after the match that Bradley playing the full contest wasn’t necessarily the initial plan, but with all of the work the American put in to get healthy, the TFC coach, with the approval of Bradley, didn’t hesitate to do so.
The Reds are back in action Thursday evening vs. Montreal. Here are the highlights from Monday’s match.
FULL MATCH HIGHLIGHTS