Amid a week of exciting announcements at the club, Toronto FC rolled into Harrison, New Jersey looking to rebound from their disappointing, but not entirely unexpected, midweek exit from the CONCACAF Champions league.
Heading into the match, there were some line-up surprises from Chris Armas ahead of his return to Red Bull Arena. Despite the manager previously stating that both players would be available, Jonathan Osorio was left out of the match-day 18 with muscle tightness and Jozy Altidore still reportedly struggling with the after effects of having a bad reaction to his second COVID-19 vaccine shot. Jacob Shaffelburg was also dropped from the 18 with Jayden Nelson stepping into a starting position and new boy Yeferson Soteldo making the bench with an eye to a 30-minute cameo.
The match started brightly, as one would expect from two sides with the explicit intent of pressing each other into submission. Each side traded half chances early, with TFC’s press looking sharp and decisive— traits not matched by their finishing within the first fifteen minutes. Both Ayo Akinola and Jayden Nelson were the benefactors of great work from Nick DeLeon and Michael Bradley respectively, but could make the most of their opportunities.
In the 14', Toronto once again, inexplicably, struggled to deal with a set-piece into the box. No player took responsibility for the incoming cross, with the ball eventually falling to Michael Bradley after pinballing around the area, who unceremoniously sent the unwelcome visitor on its way. This has been Toronto’s tactical achilles heel so far in this young season, a vulnerability well known to anyone who has spent any time watching the club so far, and one they have to shore up if they want to achieve their lofty ambitions in 2021.
As the half wore on towards its midway point, both clubs circled each other with their tails up, but much like two passing neighborhood dogs, that investigation of the other consisted of a lot of posturing and bark and very little bite. The match was being fought between the two 18-yard boxes, with neither club offering anything too probing into the other’s defence. That was until the 32’, when Red Bull’s snarl turned more sinister.
True to form, the press of the New York club led to Caden Clark picking off Mark Delgado on the left wing dangerously inside the Toronto half and playing a ball in to frontman Fabio who, in prototypical centre-forward fashion, held the ball up before teeing up RBNY new man Frankie Amaya who made no mistake slotting past Alex Bono from the edge of the box.
Things almost went from bad to worse immediately for the Reds in the 34’, as they were once again caught by the hard-running Red Bulls. Christian Casseres Jr. drove through pressure down the right wing and whipped a ball into the box towards Fabio that had the Toronto backline at 6s and 7s. An Omar Gonzalez miscue led to the ball racing through the area and it somehow didn’t end up on the boot of Fabio and in the back of the TFC net.
After New York broke the deadlock, Toronto seemed to completely lose their shape and composure. Their press lost it’s intent, their shape was flimsy and their attack was...well, not there. Throughout the half, Toronto was finding themselves outnumbered by the tactics of the Red Bulls, both in defence and in attack. This pressing intent exacerbated some poor performances within the away side (Hi, Mark Delgado), creating opportunities for Gerhard Struber’s team to find joy as the match wore on. While the half-time whistle and a chance to reset could not have come soon enough for the Reds, they did show some ability to ask questions of the RBNY backline, something Yeferson Soteldo was surely taking note of from the touchline.
As the second half got underway, Toronto looked as if they were able to steady the ship a bit and were able to put the Red Bulls under pressure with a sustained attack that unfortunately was let down once again by poor decisions in the final third.
In the 56’, the moment all TFC supporters were waiting for came, as Chris Armas wasted little time looking to bolster this attacking intent and introduced Yeferson Soteldo into the match. The newest DP replaced Jayden Nelson while Justin Morrow replaced Ralph Priso as Armas shuffled the tactical deck a little, dropping Soteldo into the no.10 role.
Before the TFC new man could make any impression on the match, the Reds found themselves down 2-0. In the 69’, wonderboy Caden Clark once again proved to be a thorn in Toronto’s side as he capitalized on some more unsteady defending to burst forward and slot a loose ball home. Clark made his presence known throughout the match and from all positions on the pitch. Surely there won’t be many TFC supporters missing his presence in the league when he inevitably gets bought up by a European club.
Toronto cut a frustrated side after New York doubled their lead. While the intent is there, the execution of Armas’ system has not yet come to full bloom. As the seed germinates, the absences of key figures throughout this initial run has certainly not aided their efforts. Toronto has often looked out of ideas in attack without much inclusion of their three designated players thus far and their defense has often looked stretched and unorganized as the midfield ahead of them looks to press, with Omar Gonzalez falling victim to this today and earning himself a booking.
Throughout the final frames of the match, TFC were swimming against the tide created by this sharp Red Bulls team and didn’t offer much to suggest they were capable of staying buoyant. In another discouraging outing for Toronto, Chris Armas will surely be looking to revamp his outlook to how he runs his side out ahead of the next match.
While this won’t be a debut to remember for Yeferson Soteldo, his first appearance will be an encouraging thing to pull from today for the club to build on heading into their next match against Columbus on Wednesday, a match that TFC’s other new signing Kemar Lawrence may be in contention for. This, coupled with the news that Alejandro Pozuelo could be within two weeks of returning, should mean positive things for the Reds heading forward.
That being said, there appear to be some systemic failings within this Toronto side as they are falling victim to the same issues on display in previous matches— lacklustre in attack, defensive instability, unassured in possession— and the TFC manager is going to act swiftly to ensure that these issues don’t become pervasive through his tenure at the helm.
Toronto FC are back in action again on Wednesday, May 12 at 7:00 EST as they play host to the reigning MLS champions Columbus Crew at the Exploria Stadium in Orlando. Until then, they’ll hit the training pitch, get men back in the squad, and get Soteldo (and hopefully Lawrence) more up to speed and acclimated ahead of what will be a very tough match for the side as they look to truly kickstart their 2021 MLS campaign.