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What went wrong for Toronto FC at the MLS is Back Tournament?

The reds make an unexpectedly early exit from the Orlando bubble.

MLS: Toronto FC vs New York City FC Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto FC always seemed to have New York City FC’s number, but clearly forgot to pack it for their trip to Orlando. An unexpectedly early flight back is the result as the reds were handily defeated 3-1 in the MLS is Back tournament’s round of 16.

There will be a lot to unpack once the team returns to Toronto, a lot of questions for Greg Vanney and his team to answer. Some of the issues that arose during the competition are likely unique to the situation they found themselves in Orlando, but others have persisted for some time.

Here is a look at what went wrong for Toronto FC at this tournament, and how much those issues might affect the team going forward, whatever the season might look like over the next couple of months.

A lack of rotation in a veteran squad

MLS: Toronto FC vs New York City FC

Conventional tournament wisdom suggests that a team should rotate its squad as little a possible. Using a limited number of players gives the squad a chance to gel and find some consistency. For Toronto FC, there were some clear signs of this working. The team’s right side, featuring Auro, Pablo Piatti and Alejandro Pozuelo looked great throughout.

With that being said, MLS is Back was hardly a conventional tournament. The heat, coupled with players not having played in multiple months, the relative fixture congestion and the early morning games were particularly tough on a largely veteran Toronto FC side. With all those factors, it was incredibly surprising that Greg Vanney stuck with a very similar eleven throughout the tournament.

Pozuelo, Piatti, Omar Gonzalez and Michael Bradley started every group game, which perhaps was an ode towards Toronto’s real goal at this tournament. The strategy would suggest that Toronto were looking to pick up regular season points as the priority, and that the knockout round was secondary.

From a regular season standpoint, Toronto FC did well at this tournament. They sit on nine points, second in the Eastern Conference. This is only the second time in club history that they have gone undefeated in their first five games, the other being 2017. Of course, there are no guarantees there will be a continuation of the regular season, so it is a risk to some degree.

Missing a central presence without Akinola

MLS: Toronto FC at Montreal Impact

When Toronto FC defeated New York City FC at Citi Field during last year’s playoffs, a big key to that victory was a system that deployed Alejandro Pozuelo as a false nine. It worked a treat, albeit on a small field and unsuspecting opponent.

On Orlando fields that by all reports are quite large, it did not. Pozuelo tended to drift out to the right throughout the match to combine with Pablo Piatti and Auro as he has throughout the tournament, which left a gap in the middle that nobody seemed able to fill properly. So while the trio once again did some good work down the flank, it often came to nothing as there was no runner in the middle. It also meant no threat in behind, which allowed New York City to push up the field more and press Toronto FC into mistakes in the midfield.

The lack of a central threat loomed large in Toronto FC’s 2017 MLS Cup loss. At the time, players on the team bemoaned not having another player on the roster who could provide and create goals.

It is a good news, bad news situation for Toronto FC at this tournament though. Provided Ayo Akinola can quick return from the hamstring discomfort that kept him out of the NYCFC match, he looks more than equipped to deputize Jozy Altidore in the middle. If anything Toronto were somewhat unlucky to have neither against NYCFC.

The lack of a Plan B

It was clear almost from kickoff that Toronto FC’s plan wasn’t going to work. New York City FC saw the success that the New England Revolution had against the reds in their final group game and perfected the strategy. The goal was to limit the time Michael Bradley had on the ball, and pressure the centre-backs.

The reds didn’t have nearly enough cohesiveness in the midfield to play around this press. The aforementioned lack of movement up front didn’t help either, as NYCFC could just sit back and force Toronto into making risky passes springing counterattacks.

With most of the opening half playing out exactly like this, Vanney didn’t react nearly quick enough. Not introducing a central attacker (either Altidore or even Patrick Mullins) and injecting more creativity into his midfield (Jonathan Osorio or Liam Fraser) led to more lethargic pay and the reds falling even further behind.

Again, it is probable that the team is taking the long view and were not willing to risk Altidore or Osorio’s long-term health for progression in this competition. If this were a legitimate playoff game it almost certainly would have been approached differently. But Vanney has shown a reluctance to move away from his game plan when things aren’t going well, and it is somewhat concerning.

Defending in transition and on set pieces

MLS: New England Revolution at Toronto FC

Toronto FC are not a quick team, that much was made painfully obvious throughout the MLS is Back tournament but was especially clear against NYCFC. A lot of that lack of pace now comes in the defensive midfield and central defence.

Teams have fully recognized this, and now sit back against Toronto, encourage their backline to creep forward and wait for a poor pass to spring counterattacks and exploit the space in behind. There was a time when Bradley’s speed made this much harder on opposition, but he and Gonzalez wer being beaten in foot races all tournament long. For as good as Auro was this tournament, from a purely defensive standpoint he did get caught out often.

Another issue that has arisen of late is the team’s ability to defend set pieces. Rather simplistic free kick routines from both D.C. United and NYCFC led to goals on both occasions because Toronto failed to organize efficiently.

This is the most concerning thing to come out of this tournament for Toronto, because it is an easily repeatable strategy that teams will continue to replicate unless the reds can figure it out. As a team, it is going to take far more defensive awareness.

Overall, reaction to Toronto FC’s exit to the MLS is Back tournament has largely been hyperbolic. A lot of what happened against NYCFC and throughout the tournament can be categorized as either unique circumstances or implicit strategy as to how the team wanted to handle the competition.

With months of no MLS action, whatever happened at this competition was always going to be overblown a little bit. Vanney’s job, for instant, is far from at risk and this competition won’t mean much should the season proceed as planned.

With that being said, there are issues with this team that have been lingering under the surface for some time and the bright Orlando sun certainly exposed them. Now it is up to the team to regroup, lick their wounds and prove that they are still among the league’s best if and when the season resumes.