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TFC Notebook: 5 things noticed as Toronto FC fall short at MLS is Back Tournament

Let’s breakdown what went wrong for TFC as they head home in the Round of 16 after a disappointing loss to NYCFC

MLS: MLS Cup-Toronto FC Head Coach Greg Vanney Press Conference
Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney speaks during a press conference. The Reds fell 3-1 to NYCFC in the Round of 16 at the MLS is Back Tournament yesterday.
(Buchanan/USA TODAY)

TORONTO, Canada—We’ve had some time to dwell on Toronto FC’s 3-1 loss to New York City FC in the Round of 16 at the MLS is Back Tournament, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it still sucks.

The Reds put in one their more frustrating performances in recent memory, falling behind early and never finding a way back into the match. The team will travel back to Toronto, where according to head coach Greg Vanney, they’ll begin preparing for MLS regular season games, which is expected to resume mid-August. We’ll have more on this later in the week.

But getting back to Sunday’s match, credit to the underdogs, NYCFC, who looked sharp from the get-go, taking it to a flat-footed TFC team right off the initial kickoff. But leaping to that observation merely begs the question, what about prior to kickoff? Were the Reds unprepared? Was that XI the best possible XI Vanney could have started in a win-or-go-home match?

Here are 5 things noticed after Toronto FC’s disappointing effort Sunday night.

17 year old Jayden Nelson makes first-team debut

MLS: Toronto FC vs New York City FC

Let’s start this notebook off with a positive: it was great to see 17-year-old 2019 Canadian Youth Player of the Year Jayden Nelson make his first MLS appearance, becoming the fourth youngest player to ever play for the club.

Nelson was called into the starting XI after Ayo Akinola, as we learned moments prior to kickoff, missed out on the fixture with what the team described as hamstring discomfort.

Playing as a left winger, the teenager started the game of very timidly, struggling to find any sort of rhythm with left-back and fellow Canadian international Richie Laryea. But as the fixture wore on, Nelson would get better, even providing a few moments of brilliance during his 57 minutes of action.

The Brampton native’s introduction wasn’t the dream debut we may be accustomed to of late from some of TFC’s brightest up-and-coming stars, and perhaps it was the pressure of the moment getting to the youngster, but as the Toronto FC II product alluded to after the match, there’s a sense of relief now that his highly-anticipated debut is behind him.

“I feel like I can take away the pressure,” said Nelson, when asked after the match what some of his takeaways were. “When it comes to tournaments like this, I just haven’t been in a lot of big tournaments like this, so, knowing how to mentally prepare and play and control the game in different types of ways.. but I feel like it was a good start for me and I’m just ready for the future.”

Entering the MLS is Back Tournament, I had Nelson ranked #2 TFC Rising Star rankings; I expect we’ll be hearing a lot more from him in the future. The 200th player to ever play for the club, was it written in the stars?

Coach Vanney gets this one wrong

MLS: New England Revolution at Toronto FC

Let’s start with the obvious: the starting XI.

While it was great to see Nelson make his first-team debut and this is not a knock on the youngster whatsoever, but did his first appearance have to be in such a pressure-filled game at the MLS is Back Tournament? I mean, if the TFC manager believed Nelson really could make that much of a difference, why not give him a bit of playing time to get settled in earlier in the tournament?

With Jozy Altidore and Jonathan Osorio unfit to start, surely Tsubasa Endoh or Jacob Shaffelburg could’ve been the safer choices on the wing given their experience so far for the club, right?

And then there’s the substitutions. It wasn’t until the Reds were 2-0 down, in the 57th minute following NYCFC’s second goal when Vanney decided to bring Altidore, Osorio, and Erickson Gallardo into the match. Way too late.

Heading into halftime, granted his side did finish the first half well, the game was screaming for a TFC substitution as the Reds were honestly lucky to escape into the break down by only one. And in a match with no room for error, you have to be proactive not reactive.

For what it’s worth, this was essentially the head coach’s analysis of his team’s performance after the match.

“I thought everything for us was too slow,” said Vanney after the match. “The tempo of the game too slow. There’s a lot of individual and collective things that I will take away from the game that are not for the press conference that we will deal with within our group. But everything was too slow. It lacked urgency, it lacked intensity.

“...the ball movement was too slow. Too much dwelling. Too many touches. It wasn’t what I would define as the best version of what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to be. In a knockout, if you’re like that one night, you’re out and you go home. So, tonight that’s what happened. They were better than us and they deserve to win, and we go home.”

Vanney, the winningest coach in club history, earns himself a pass here, but he’ll have to shoulder most of the blame for the club’s early exit from Orlando.

Gonzalez wraps up MLS is Back with forgettable performance

MLS: Toronto FC vs New York City FC

He’s been so good since his arrival to the club last July, but 31 year old Omar Gonzalez had himself a tournament to forget.

The former U.S. International began the competition with a dominating 60 minutes against D.C. United before he was forced off due to cramp. He subsequently followed that up with a subpar performance against Montreal—one where he was subject to an abundance of Vanney yelling—before wrapping up the group stage with a clean sheet over the New England Revolution.

With room to grow, coming into Sunday’s single-elimination game, Gonzalez said that he personally was feeling better with his play as the tournament advanced. Unfortunately, I don’t think his sentiment aged very well as the former MLS Defender of the Year put in arguably his worst performance in a Reds’ uniform on Sunday.

Perhaps a product of the hot Florida weather, but as the match wore on, Gonzalez looked noticeably slow and was eventually exposed by NYCFC’s Valentin Castellanos for their second goal, allowing the New York attacker to cut inside onto his right foot too easily before slotting it home into the corner past a sprawling Quentin Westberg.

A leader at the back, Gonzalez is so critical to the Reds outlook in 2020, especially given the lack of depth at the centre-back position. Hopefully, this was just a mere blip and he’ll be able to turn the corner come mid-August.

Piatti underwhelms with makeshift lineup

MLS: Toronto FC vs New York City FC

Entering the MLS is Back Tournament, most TFC fans did not know what to expect of the Reds’ newest designated player, who joined the club prior to the start of the season. The resume was there, but the 31 year old was coming off a serious ACL injury, one that required him to miss most of the 2019 season.

With the term “load management” being thrown around by TFC officials, Piatti was able to start every game at MLS is Back, being substituted in every match but accumulating 263 minutes of playing time alongside his new teammates. He showed a great understanding with Alejandro Pozuelo and Auro down the right-hand side, but against NYCFC—a match in which TFC lined up with no true striker—Piatti failed to make an impact, playing 57 minutes before being taken off.

For a designated player, and when you think about the difference on the field Pozuelo, Altidore, or even Bradley can make, Piatti’s showing at MLS is Back was a little underwhelming in my opinion. He’s yet to play alongside Altidore, however, and I still salivate over the thought of an attack spearheaded by Piatti, Altidore, and Pozuelo.

So TFC fans, how do we feel about Pablo Piatti after his first four games with the club?

Did the minutes catch up to Michael Bradley?

MLS: Toronto FC vs New York City FC

Heading into the MLS is Back Tournament, Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley last played a competitive match eight months ago: on November 10, 2019 in the MLS Cup Final.

Coming off a major ankle surgery, Bradley started the tournament off strong, like he hadn’t missed a beat. He’d play a full 90 minutes in his first match back before following that up with two more 90-minute outings against Montreal and New England. In fact, the TFC captain was the only member of the squad to play every minute of the tournament for the Reds despite his long layoff prior to the competition.

There aren’t any more question marks about his ankle, however, against New York, the hot Florida weather perhaps caught up to Bradley, as the TFC skipper looked to be a step behind at times, often chasing the game as opposed to being the game.

The gap between Bradley and the centre-backs was often exploited by NYCFC, and as we saw on New York’s second goal, a lot of that was due to the amount of ground the 32 year old was being asked to make up. I don’t think he was horrible in the match, but I think we can all agree we’ve seen better versions of MB4.

A machine off the field, there aren’t any questions to be asked of Bradley’s effort or capability. You simply can’t replicate match fitness and I believe what we saw was the product of a very worn out TFC team.

So for the holding midfielder, at the very least, the MLS is Back Tournament was progress as the Reds prepare for what should be an interesting rest of the season.

“When you come here and you get four 90 minutes under your belt, that part is really important,” wrapped up Bradley after the match. “So, we’ll recover from this, mentally, physically and then make sure we’re ready to continue to push things in training over this next stretch so we’re ready for what’s next.”