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Three things for Toronto FC to clean up as the MLS season progresses

Saturday’s season opener against FC Dallas revealed some issues that Toronto FC will need to work on.

MLS: Toronto FC at FC Dallas Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

We are only one game into Toronto FC’s 2022 MLS season, so inconsistencies and a steep learning curve are to be expected.

This is especially true with Toronto introducing a new head coach, attempting to integrate at least nine new players (Salcedo, Jimenez, O’Neill, Kerr, MacNaughton, Chung, Ranjitsingh and eventually at least two more in Insigne and Criscito) and starting two young players in entirely new positions (Shaffelburg and Marshall-Rutty).

Still, the match against FC Dallas on Saturday revealed a few issues that Bob and company will need to work on as the season progresses.

  1. Holding onto the ball for too long.

Toronto was too frequently caught holding onto the ball for too long at both ends of the field. In the defensive third, it was often Shaffelburg and Marshall-Rutty who were dispossessed when trying to beat opponents on the dribble, which led to dangerous counter attacks against an almost entirely new Toronto back four.

In the offensive third, it was Pozuelo, Nelson, Shaffelburg and Kerr who were all guilty of trying to do too much and not shooting or releasing the ball to an open teammate early enough. The lack of overlapping and underlapping runs also contributed to individuals holding onto the ball for too long, as passing options did not always immediately present themselves. This took away from Toronto’s overall attacking threat, as evidenced by the fact they only managed to register eight shots with one on target despite having 57% possession.

2. Difficulties building out from the back.

In the first half of Saturday’s game, Toronto really struggled to play the ball out from the back and these issues extended beyond Bono’s weaknesses playing the ball with his feet.

Toronto’s back four were sometimes almost in a straight line when trying to progress the ball, making it easy for Dallas to pin Toronto in their end and force them into making mistakes.

When building out from the back, the pass from CB to CB, and CB to fullback are often available, but neither are desirable options for progressing directly upfield. The CB to CB pass is a lateral one to see if a better option presents itself, while the CB to fullback pass can often be pressure passes where options are quickly limited by a good pressing opponent - especially since the touchline can be used like another defender. Michael Bradley occasionally dropped back with the CBs to give an additional passing outlet, but this meant even less bodies in midfield to link the defense with the attack.

3. Aggressive pressing exposing the defensively suspect fullbacks.

When Toronto was out of possession in Dallas’ defensive third, they pressed quite aggressively in hopes of quickly winning the ball back. However, this press was often easily beaten and it put more pressure on Toronto’s relatively new back four to defend in a chaotic way. The defensively inexperienced Marshall-Rutty and Shaffelburg either gambled on a last ditch tackle or were caught out of position when a pass was played to their sides of the field. Mavinga was easily bypassed as he charged up field to try and intercept passes to slow down Dallas’ build up a few times, which only further compounded Toronto’s defensive issues at the back.

All in all, these tactical observations should be taken with a grain of salt. We are one game into the season, there is a new system to learn, there are a lot of new players adjusting to each other, and there are players trying to learn new positions.

Still, Coach Bradley will have work to do on these three issues going forward if he’s going to turn this Toronto side into a well oiled machine. Holding onto the ball less will require more options presenting themselves from players moving into the weak spots in the opposition’s press or by making overlapping and underlapping runs in the opposition’s half. Moving the ball quicker will also make it easier to build out from the back. Learning the triggers on when to aggressively press and when to shepherd a press or even sit back will help relieve pressure on Toronto’s relatively inexperienced back four.

While it will take time to learn the system and for these actions to become automatic - it is promising that Toronto was able to get a point in their season opener, despite all the winds of change that were swirling around the club this off-season.