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James Grossi weighs in on TFC’s goalkeeping controversy and up-and-down start to the year

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The MLSSoccer.com writer joined Waking the Red Weekly this past week to discuss the team’s chaotic start to the year and share his opinion on TFC’s goalkeeping controversy early on.

MLS: Toronto FC at New York City FC
Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono (25) catches the ball during the first half against New York City at Yankee Stadium.
(Carchietta/USA TODAY)

The Chris Armas TFC era has been something of a mixed bag this season, and on the latest episode of Waking the Red Weekly presented by Footy Talks, James Grossi of TorontoFC.ca and MLSsoccer.com shared his thoughts on what the club has done wrong—and right—on the pitch early on and what Toronto FC fans should be keeping their eye on as the season progresses:

“It’s always a mix of factors that come together to see a team find a little bit of form after a rough start. But I think the thing that really stood out for me against Columbus was the way that they struck the right balance between being that hyperactive pressing side that we’ve heard so much from Chris Armas about, and finding those little moments to control the game in possession and to get their rest on the ball.”

“The way I would frame it is that they were stifling with their possession. You know, Columbus is a good team, they’re the defending champions whether we call them the Crew or not; they’re expected to do big things this year. Toronto FC managed to have such control over that game that we barely saw what Columbus was capable of. They were missing a couple of guys and were a little bit short on the bench, but that was a dominant performance—the kind of performance we haven’t seen from Toronto since late last year when they did it to the Crew again at the end of last season.”

“So, I’m looking at how they’re navigating the desire to be that pressing team—and what that means we’re not entirely clear on—but also using their skillset of being a team that’s really good with the ball: a team that can play around people and that is smart enough to know when to pick they’re moments.”

“I think if you look at that Red Bull game, which I think was the real game that got the alarms ringing for everybody, they were so disjointed and so unconnected. And that’s always the risk when you go with—this is the wrong term but I think it illustrates it perfectly: ‘mindless pressing,’ where you get disconnected from your teammates, and the pitch ends up being 70 yards long and Red Bull are just cutting through you like nothing.”

“So, how do they strike that balance?”

“Armas has said that he wanted them to rest in possession; how much is it ‘foot on the gas’ and how much of it is controlling the game and choking the life out of the opponent? We’re going to have to monitor that. We didn’t see quite as much of a dominant level of control against NYCFC on the weekend, and part of that is due to NYCFC being in form. Also they play on a little postage stamp, so it’s pretty hard to control anything when everything’s going a million miles per hour—you turn and all of a sudden you’re standing in your own six yard box. So seeing how that comes about and evolves is something that I’m going to be keeping my eye on.”

“And an addition to finding that balance, I think is getting Jozy (Altidore) back. He hasn’t maybe contributed on the pitch as much as we’d like to see, but he’s a very important guy to have around that team in terms of being a leader and the attitude and the vibes he gives that group, especially when they’re facing being so far away from home and never knowing what stadium they’re going to be playing in.”

One significant switch from Armas has seen Quentin Westberg replaced by Alex Bono as the first choice keeper between the posts. What did Grossi make of this tactical move, and how likely is it that Bono will keep his place after some scary moments from set pieces in recent games?

“I understand why it’s something that everyone’s asking questions about. Q came into this team and for the last 18 months, he’s been the pretty clear number one. I think the thing that puts me off about reading too much into this is that we don’t know an awful lot about what’s going on behind the scenes. We got word that Q was late reporting for camp, and that’s sort of a no-no when it comes to your team, and what that means in terms of the internal dressing room rules—in terms of how you make amends for that.”

“I would say that the games have come pretty thick and fast for TFC, there hasn’t been a lot of time to adjust or make the changes. For Chris Armas, I’d say this is a team that I think is playing relatively well with Alex in the back—do we want to make that change now just for the sake of making that change? I think the game on the weekend was pretty instrumental for what we can expect from Alex. He’s going to make the occasional error, every player does, and especially when you’re a goalkeeper your mistakes are pretty magnified. That one where the freekick gets away from him, it’s a pretty wickedly hit free kick, but you want to do better. With the turf in Yankee Stadium, who knows what it’s like? But again you’d want to do better and he rightly held his hands up afterwards. Then about two minutes later on the next NYCFC free kick he makes a pretty stunning double save that prevents the game going 2 - 0 and very much helps TFC win what would turn out to be a point on the day.”

“So I’m with everybody else in that I don’t think we have the full story in terms of what exactly is going on. The one other thing that I would throw out there—and this is just pure speculation–is that Westberg is 35, goalkeepers can play much longer than your average outfield player, but Alex is 27. He’s entering the prime of his goalkeeping career. Whether it is sell-on value or whether it is a guy who can be a starter for you for the next decade there is value in getting Alex this reps right now.”

“The other factor that you have to consider is that Q was very much brought in as a possession goalkeeper, a guy that was going to use his feet. One of the elements that Greg Vanney liked about him so much was that he was that 11th player on the field. And if that skillset isn’t as important when you’re not trying to retain possession then maybe you go for a bigger keeper. It hasn’t exactly worked out on set pieces for TFC this year, but it’s something that the coaching staff might be thinking about.”

For everything TFC - check out the full episode of this week’s Waking the Red Weekly now, also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify! Kindly like, rate, and subscribe!