TORONTO, Canada—As Toronto FC general manager Ali Curtis mentioned on a number of occasions during the team’s most recent press conference when the club announced the dismissal of former head coach Chris Armas, in many ways, Major League Soccer is a results-oriented business.
And on Wednesday, the players responded to the firing of Armas by earning a result, picking up all three points for the first time in almost two months when they defeated the Eastern Conference leaders New England Revolution—in New England—by a score of 3-2.
While the team had to hold on for dear life for the majority of the match after quickly jumping out to a 3-0 lead, at the end of the day, they found a way to see out the victory, something the club has not been able to say for much of this season.
So with that in mind, here is my latest TFC Notebook, as we look ahead following Wednesday night’s inspired win.
Javier Perez may have earned his shot as interim manager
The man, the myth, the legend with a notebook.
Javier Perez, who had been given the reigns for Wednesday night’s game at New England, with only three days to prepare for the match, may have just earned his shot as the team’s interim manager for the remainder of this season.
Perez was not outright given the interim tag before kickoff on Wednesday, with team president Bill Manning noting that the club would assess the current situation on an ongoing basis before ideally bringing in a longer-term solution.
But following Wednesday night’s game, it appears that Perez may have just put his name at the front of the pack.
“The team responded to Javi and the moment in a great way, and took a result in one of the toughest places to play in MLS,” Curtis said in a text to The Canadian Press. “(The) goal is to name a permanent interim (coach) prior to Monday training, likely before that.”
Perez, who spent time with New York City FC, the US men’s national team, and Real Madrid’s youth academy before joining TFC as an assistant this season, said after Wednesday’s win that the club’s next match—July 17 vs Orlando City SC—would be his next challenge unless management communicates with him otherwise.
Team captain Michael Bradley, who has known Perez for years dating back to their time together with the US men’s national team, also offered some kind words about the 44-year-old Spaniard.
“Javi is a great man, first and foremost. He has a great way with the group, a calm way,” said Bradley. “He was, I think, as disappointed as anyone with Chris getting fired and the results in this last stretch.
“But obviously as he said in the last day or two, it’s a big opportunity here for everyone here now to get things going. And he, from the first time he spoke to the group, just in calm, strong way talked about how we were going to approach the game. Things were laid out in a good, clear way. The work on the (training) field was good and we were able to step on the field (Wednesday) night and execute things in a good way.
“I’m really happy for him. He loves the game. He’s as into it as anyone I’ve been around.”
We’ll hear more on the direction TFC heads with their vacant managerial position in the coming days, but at this point, it’d be a surprise to see anyone else named besides Perez.
No press, no problem
The biggest difference to me between Armas and Perez, based off early impressions, is that Perez comes off as more of a tactician, while Armas spoke as more of a motivator.
This isn’t to say Armas doesn’t possess a great understanding of the game, but often, he would stress intangibles like ‘high-intensity, high energy,’ whereas Perez seems to be more reserved and focused on the ins and outs of the match.
In a way, that’s similar how Greg Vanney approached the game. A TFC player told me earlier this season that Armas was like a best friend, a type of guy that you could approach at any time, but Greg, he just knew the game, and that’s sort of the sense here I get with Perez, and it’s not just because of his website, which you should absolutely check out by the way.
Manning admitted during Sunday’s press conference that there was a lack of cohesion between the roster makeup and the style of play Chris wanted to implement. This was a team that went from playing out of the back for years, a meticulous build-up squad, to a team that tried to thrive off counter-pressing. And simply put, with the players in place, it didn’t work.
So on Wednesday, we saw TFC revert to the TFC of old in a sense, a side that was willing to play out of the back and keep possession in tight areas on the pitch, instead of kicking the ball down field and hoping to gain field position by winning the ball back in dangerous areas.
In addition, and this was probably the biggest difference, they elected not to press higher up the pitch. Instead, they set up in a mid or low-block and invited pressure. One of the biggest knocks under Armas was that the team would go out and press often, which would essentially draw players out of position if they were beat, and make it easier for an opposition to break you down, often with a single pass—a flaw we saw exploited time and time again.
That wasn’t the case last night as Bradley, who the midfield revolves around, dropped lower and played as more of a classic No. 6 as we’ve seen in the past with Mark Delgado working relentlessly alongside him in the middle of the park, again, as we’ve often seen in the past. There were more bodies that New England had to break down in tighter areas in the pitch, which in turn, relieved some of the pressure put on the team’s backline and made Toronto FC harder to break down overall.
Those adjustments were made in just two days by Perez, who spoke after the match about how he tried to make the most of his time.
“We have very limited time, just two days to prepare,” said Perez. “The first day we worked on our defensive shape, how we were going to prepare the team against New England, and the second day we work about how we were going to play with the ball. So, I think the game reflects both parts of the game that we worked on in training.”
Perez also mentioned prior to Wednesday’s game how he prides himself in studying oppositions and finding ways to exploit their weaknesses. He also mentioned that at the same time, he wanted to find ways to get the best out of his players, like his two designated players.
“I think taking advantage of their ability,” said Perez, when asked about Alejandro Pozuelo and Yeferson Soteldo after the match. “Alejandro is a magnificent player with the ball. He’s a player that change the tempo of the game, and Yeferson is a player that can take one, maybe two players by himself. He can hold the ball. So, basically take advantage of the characteristics of both of them.”
I think we can all agree that, goals aside, the team—the identity—TFC rolled out last night looked a lot different than the first 11 MLS matches this season. Now, let’s see what it looks like when this side gets a full week of training under their belt.
A night of firsts
Not only was Wednesday night the first time Toronto FC picked up three points on the ‘road’, but it also marked the first time, and perhaps this was no coincidence, that both Yeferson Soteldo and Alejandro Pozuelo started a match together.
Both players have been dealing with injuries early on this year, but the duo showed just how special they can be when in the lineup together from the jump.
As Perez, and many others have alluded to in the past, Pozuelo is a game changer and that was on full display Wednesday night, controlling the tempo of the match from the middle of the park. When in doubt, the ball found Pozuelo’s feet, and more times than not, the reigning MLS MVP was able to make a play.
Soteldo, meanwhile, may have had his best game as a member of Toronto FC, as he was virtually unplayable at times. He plays with a swagger and confidence to take players on 1v1 that we haven’t seen out of a player at Toronto FC since Sebastian Giovinco.
He capped off the night with his first goal in a TFC uniform, albeit off a mistake from New England backup keeper Brad Knighton, but nevertheless, it was great to see Soteldo get that monkey off his back. As his fitness level ramps up, I’m expecting to see more magic from the Venezuelan international, as I believe we’re just scratching the surface of the 23-year-old’s potential.
Fullback Kemar Lawrence also netted his first goal in a Toronto FC kit, as he was released with a gorgeous through ball from Pozuelo, before absolutely rifling one home. While Lawrence has been solid defensively, questions have been asked about what he can offer going forward, but if he keeps providing runs and finishes like he did on Wednesday, the left side will be quite the handful for opponents to deal with this year.
And how about the finish from Tsubasa Endoh? Occupying space down the right wing, the Japan native cut onto his weak foot and curled a gorgeous strike past the sprawling New England keeper for his first of the MLS campaign—a goal that would’ve been worthy of a standing ovation at BMO Field.
Tsubasa Endoh looking like the player of old
Speaking of Endoh, goal aside, I thought he was terrific on the night, making what was just his second start of the campaign. While it was only one match, Endoh seemed to be comfortable down the right wing, as he offered the perfect balance between keeping possession and a player capable of running through the lines.
When asked why he hadn’t seen much playing time leading up to this match, here’s what the MLS SuperDraft pick had to say:
“Well, I think I missed the whole preseason because of my injury. I had a surgery, and it hasn’t been easy to get in the mix. And as a player, it’s honestly tough to miss the whole preseason, and just coming into the game and try to understand what the new coach is trying to do.
So I mean, for me, that’s part of the reason why. But even after I came back from surgery, I was struggling a little bit. So it wasn’t — I wasn’t feeling my best. So that was definitely part of it.
But now I’m feeling 100 per cent. I’ve been ready, so like I said, I have not been playing in the last couple, I don’t know, back in 2019, first part of 2019. I just had to keep my head down and keep training. You just need to keep training hard, and you know, be ready. Be ready for this kind of opportunity, and then once it’s laid out in front of you, you just need to take it. I’ve been saying that or I’ve been telling myself that for every single time every single year when I first was out of university, right.
So, you know, that’s all you can do. That’s all you can control. So, yeah, I’ve been ready. I’m not the type of guy who complains, go to the coach or whatever. So, just, you know, keep my head down and just be ready for this kind of opportunity. That’s it.”
As I alluded to off the top, Endoh offered something different down the right-hand side that seemed to compliment the way TFC wanted to play. Typically, with players like Jonathan Osorio or Nick DeLeon, they’re more so inverted wingers, where they don’t offer many direct runs in behind an opposition. And while they’re still great players, especially when it comes to keeping possession and finding that final pass in the attacking third, they don’t stretch the field as well as someone like an Endoh.
He has made a case for more minutes moving forward, and with Osorio away with the national team for Gold Cup, he’ll have a chance to really make that case, especially with that right wing role still very much up for grabs.
Time to dig in and build off Wednesday
While Wednesday night’s win was an inspiring one, and to do that away from home against the Eastern Conference leaders—one of the toughest places in MLS to play—should not be understated, let’s be clear: that was the first step towards a long way back.
Bradley mentioned after the match that this team dug themselves a really big hole, and they know that there’s still quite of bit of work left to be done.
As it stands, Toronto FC currently find themselves still in last place in the MLS, eight points back of DC United for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Is the season still salvageable? With 22 games and 66 points still up for grabs, very much so, but they’ll have to dig in here for a really tough stretch of games following the Gold Cup break.
Up first, the club will return home for training before taking on Orlando City SC on July 17 at an undisclosed location. While the hope is for the team to be able to play that match at BMO Field, they are still awaiting government approval, and the longer that this saga stretches on without the team receiving official clearance, the less likely that they’ll actually be able to host that match down by the lakeshore.
Manning did mention that the team does have a backup plan in case they don’t receive approval to host the game at BMO somewhere in the States. They will not be back at Exploria in Orlando.
In addition to the venue still being up in the air, the club will have to find a way to pick up points without some key pieces. Osorio and Richie Laryea, who were absent from Wednesday after departing to Canada camp, will soon be joined by Ayo Akinola. Depending on how far Canada advance in the Gold Cup, those three players may miss the club’s next four matches against Orlando, New York Red Bulls, Chicago Fire, and Nashville SC.
Akinola’s absence in particular raises a big question mark about the status of Jozy Altidore, who I’ve been told appears to be heading towards a reconciliation with the club. If you’re relying on Dom Dwyer at this stage of his career and Patrick Mullins to be your goal-scoring threats, that’s a big issue, so the status of Altidore heading into that July 17 match becomes that much more important. Stay tuned for an update on his situation in the coming days.
Kemar Lawrence and Eriq Zavaleta, meanwhile, will also be taking part in the Gold Cup with Jamaica and El Salvador respectively. With Laryea already gone to Canada camp, the only natural fullbacks on the roster are Auro Jr. and Justin Morrow. Morrow has been dealing with a variety of injuries this season, so it remains to be seen how exactly TFC will adjust.
It won’t be easy, but it’s time for the team to really dig in here and build off Wednesday’s momentum. If they find a way to do so, this 2021 season, which felt ever-so lost just one week ago, will get that much more interesting down the stretch.