TORONTO, Canada—Is it 2015 again? Because Toronto FC put in a vintage performance Wednesday night in their 2-0 win over Columbus SC, with goals from Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore (yes, you read that correctly.)
Chris Armas notched his first career Major League Soccer victory and the Reds managed to pick up three points for the first time this campaign—and looked dominant doing so, the TFC way.
The team got back on track and bounced back in uplifting fashion after Saturday’s disappointing loss to the New York Red Bulls and will be looking to carry that momentum into this Saturday’s match against the other team from New York: New York City FC.
Here’s my latest TFC Notebook after TFC re-instilled some faith back in the fanbase.
Ralph Priso continues to impress
When you think about young players around the league, the first ones to come to mind are typically the guys who have been able to find their name on the scoresheet: Caden Clark, Cade Cowell, even Frankie Amaya.
That’s just the name of the game within our North American culture. Unless they’re doing something highlight-reel worthy or finding themselves on Sportscentre, more often than not, young players won’t receive the league-wide recognition they perhaps deserve.
But here in Toronto, we’ve been privy to one of our own rapidly—18 year old Ralph Priso—growing into one of the more steady midfielders in MLS, developing a close relationship (on and off the pitch) with captain Michael Bradley.
“I love playing with him,” said Bradley when asked about his relationship in the middle of the park with Priso following Wednesday night’s win. “I think we’ve developed a really good relationship. He plays with a mature—a maturity, he has an aggression, a physical strength to him. He sees things quickly and gets the ball quickly to the next guy.
“He’s a guy that, I don’t know, for me he’s been so good and so important for us that obviously it’s a guy who given the way he plays, you have to understand—you have to really understand football to understand what he brings to the game and what he brings to our team in terms of balance, in terms of sniffing plays out, coming away with tackles and loose balls...”
Oddly enough, that feeling has been mutual for a while. When I spoke to Priso prior to the start of the season—a tidbit I didn’t include in my feature at the time—he told me that if there was one player he looks up to on the TFC roster, it’s the captain and engine in the middle of the park.
“Someone I like to observe and admire, I’d say Michael Bradley because of his professionalism, the way he carries himself, the way he takes care of himself, how he works,” said Priso. “I’d say for someone that’s already had such a long career, the way he still stays on top of it, is impressive and it’s inspiring—and that’s how I want to be as well.”
ICYMI: Toronto FC's young gun Ralph Priso was cut from the academy on three separate occasions before finally breaking through in 2017.— Michael Singh (@MichaelSingh94) April 8, 2021
Four years later, he's starting a Concacaf Champions League match for the first team in León, Mexico.https://t.co/7ZENWVAh5V pic.twitter.com/6VLbtq9wZ1
Armas has instructed Priso to stay close to Bradley while on the field, and with his ability to cover ground and sniff out second balls, the two have found a balance in the middle of the park that appears to be working.
Priso told me prior to the start of the year that his goal was to become a full-time starter with Toronto FC by the end of the season. Eight games into the campaign—six starts and seven appearances—there’s a chance he may have already accomplished that feat.
“I love playing with him in the center of the field,” wrapped up Bradley. “I think we’ve developed a good relationship, and so, yeah, we’ve got to keep—keep pushing him along.”
Yeferson Soteldo is a baller
While he didn’t have a goal or assist in his first start for Toronto FC since making the move over from Santos FC, fans could see why there’s so much hype built around the club’s new designated player.
“I think it’s clear from the top all the way down—from Mr. Tannenbaum and the board to Bill and Ali and Chris and right on down to the players—we want to win,” said Bradley. “The expectation is to compete in every competition we’re in, always, and so obviously when you have a DP spot open ... the expectation is that you’re going big and you’re going to get a guy who is going to come and really push the envelope for the team and the league.
“And so, I think Yeferson is still getting to know our group and still finding his feet a little bit but you can see the ability he has as a dribbler. He has a way of mixing things up, coming inside, staying a bit wider. And as we get him more time with our group on the training field and in games, we are going to see the best of him.”
From his set-piece deliveries, to the swagger he brings on the pitch with his willingness to dance around defenders and take them on, Soteldo injects a bit of quality into this TFC side that perhaps only the reigning MVP Alejandro Pozuelo can match. At times, it’s easy to forget that this guy is only 23 years old and is only going to get better.
“He’s a good 1 v 1 guy and you can see that in the final third, he can unbalance and he’s dangerous. And in other moments he’s a very intelligent player,” said Armas. “It was almost tough to take him off. We’re trying to manage minutes but he’s a guy in certain moments when we needed to keep the ball he’s one of the guys that could do that.”
Soteldo looked like a completely different player starting the match as opposed to coming in as a sub and trying to do too much to make the difference on his debut. While he only played 64 minutes as the team eases him into the mix, I’m expecting we see some more magic out of Toronto FC’s newest star.
“Listen, what I think he adds to the team is quality but also, you know, a real belief,” said Armas. “You feel like your chances are better with guys like that. He has only been training for a new days but we think he added something really interesting to our team and we’re just getting started with him.”
Also a bit of a side note, I can’t believe he didn’t open his bank account last night. They may not come any easier than this missed chance.
Armas’ unwavered faith in Alex Bono pays dividends
Credit where credit is due.
Head coach Chris Armas stuck to his guns Wednesday night, handing Alex Bono his eighth-straight start in goal for Toronto FC to open up the 2021 campaign, and his unwavered faith in the 27-year-old keeper paid dividends.
Although he wasn’t asked to do a ton of work, he did his job, making three saves in the victory to post his first clean sheet of the season.
While Bono’s ability to make saves and communicate at the back was never in question, what really helped the TFC goalkeeper on Wednesday night was a bit of a shift in philosophy.
When in possession, instead of Toronto FC simply kicking the ball up the field every time in hopes of winning the second ball and getting at the opposition on the counterpress, with Columbus not really applying any pressure, Bono made simple passes to either his left or his right more times than not.
If TFC are able to maintain and execute this game plan moving forward, then Bono’s long passes won’t become much of a talking point.
Again, a lot of that was likely due to Columbus being content with sitting back, but that potential shift in philosophy is certainly keep an eye on heading into Saturday’s contest vs. NYCFC.
Toronto FC veterans step up in a big way
As I mentioned off the bat, this was a vintage performance for Toronto FC.
Bradley put in a man-of-the-match performance, while Altidore dialed the clock back a few years, giving fans a glimpse of his potential when he is healthy and locked in.
I won’t go into too much depth about either guy (because we have pieces on WTR dropping on both players), but I can’t go through this whole notebook without giving them some love.
Two other veterans that earned some praise in Wednesday night’s win were Chris Mavinga and Omar Gonzalez.
A year after finishing fifth in MLS Defender of the Year voting, Mavinga showed once again why he’s probably the most important piece to that TFC back line. His impact on this Toronto FC team cannot be overstated, and it’s quite possible that Toronto FC’s success this campaign will rely on whether or not Mavinga staying healthy this season.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, has settled in next to his partner in crime after a shaky start to the season, albeit being paired alongside a 20-year-old rookie and Eriq Zavaleta. Winning and Gonzalez have been synonymous since arrival in Toronto midway through the summer of 2019, and with Mavinga by his side, the two have the potential to be a very solid CB pairing in MLS.
“I think you could see a real focus from Omar and Chris,” said Armas after the match. “I think they both were the foundation of what was going on, and then I think when you look around the field, you know, especially to the left and right with Richie and Auro, I think they were locked down on the night, not an easy matchup for sure.”
The Reds kept the opposition scoreless for the first time this season, so hopefully this is a step in the right direction as the veterans—from Altidore and Bradley to Gonzalez and Mavinga—will play a crucial role for TFC this campaign if they have their sights set on another strong Supporters’ Shield run and potentially an MLS Cup.
Chris Armas finding the right balance
Chris Armas’ first MLS win for Toronto FC was an impressive one, not only because it was a victory over the reigning MLS Cup Champions (who were undefeated up to that point of the season.) The TFC head coach also showed that he’s capable of adjusting in order to get the most out of his players as the club opted to keep possession more times than not, as opposed to playing heavily on the counterpress.
When asked about there being a better balance tonight in terms of pressing at the right times and keeping possession, here’s what Armas had to say:
“Yeah, look, you’re right, and it was deliberate,” said Armas. “We have players that are really good in possession, and trying to put them in spots to work towards that strength while understanding moments to really attack and almost play where it could feel like transition from possession, where you have the ball but it’s not just a pass-around. I thought we used the ball well tonight. I thought we attack asked got ourselves in some good spots and we attacked certain areas that we were hoping to.”
With Toronto FC playing under the hot Florida sun, Armas reeled back his demand of his players a bit. Instead of going all out and pressing all the time, the team pressed in a really intelligent manner, staying organized for most of the night.
“So, yeah, look, I think that the good thing that I also saw defensively was when it feels like 90 degrees and humid, it’s hard to press with long stretches, so it’s, then what, maybe we are controlling certain spaces and trying to be organized in the mid-block,” said Armas. “I thought our guys, they relatively stayed organized and then it’s still hard. I know some guys started pressing on their own but it is hard to do that in the heat but I think tonight with the ball was a nice step forward and then defensively, it was important that we were organized for most of the night.”
Credit where credit is due once again. Armas’ game plan worked to a tee last night. It’ll be interesting to see if any of that had to do with Columbus not getting on TFC defenders as much as we’ve seen other teams in the past, but you have to give the head coach some well-deserved props there.
Pay attention to how TFC game plan for another big test on Saturday against another undefeated side in New York City FC, and I think this quote from Bradley sums up where Toronto FC is at right now really nicely.
“We weren’t ready to hit the panic button after the Red Bull game and we’re not ready to say we’ve won anything yet tonight, either. You know, it’s a long season. We’ll continue to work. We’ll continue to move ourselves along. And — and that’s that.”