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Three takeaways from Toronto FC’s match against Columbus Crew

In spite of a bright first half, Bob Bradley’s side still has work to do.

Sean Pollock l Waking The Red

Despite losing their second straight match this past Saturday, there were still positives to take away from the game in Columbus. In particular, the first 45 was the best soccer that Toronto FC have played so far in the 2022 MLS season. This article will cover three of the main takeaways from the match against Columbus Crew.

Three takeaways from TFC’s match vs. Columbus Crew:

  1. The shift to a back three/five formation in the first half saw TFC play some of their best soccer so far this season.

TFC played some of their best soccer in the first half against Columbus Crew this past weekend. This was completely unexpected when TFC’s starting XI was announced with a makeshift back four of Chung, Bradley, MacNaughton and Marshall-Rutty. None of these four had ever played together at the back, as Bradley is not normally a CB, Marshall-Rutty just started playing RB this season, and Chung and MacNaughton were making the first MLS starts of their budding careers. The defining moment was when Marshall-Rutty was unfortunately forced off due to injury. Bob shifted the formation to a back three/five with Petrasso and Nelson playing as wingbacks and Chung, Michael Bradley and MacNaughton as CBs. This led to the team’s most defensively sound performance in a half so far this season and Chung was particularly impressive despite never having played as a CB in his career to date.

In that first half, there was not a single TFC player that could have been singled out for a poor performance. Not only were TFC defensively sound, but they were also able to easily generate scoring chances. Petrasso and Nelson were finding a lot of space to attack on the flanks and combined well with Pozuelo. Their progressive build up play in wide areas opened up opportunities for Okello, Osorio and Chung to penetrate Columbus’ defense with splitting, vertical passes to the front three. However, this was only sustained for 45 minutes.

2. This team is young and will not yet be able to sustain high levels of play for a full 90 minutes.

With how young the majority of this TFC team is (12 players are aged 24 or younger), inconsistent performances between, and even within, matches should be no surprise. Many of these young players are either making their MLS debuts or getting their first opportunities at extended playing time with the TFC first team. The adjustment from youth sides to the top men’s level can be significant, which is why you often see clubs from Europe’s top five leagues loaning their youth players to other leagues (or lower domestic divisions) to get them the requisite playing time, experience and maturity needed before eventually breaking through their own first teams. TFC do not have the same luxury as these European clubs, as MLS is still relatively new in the world soccer stage. Moreover, the Reds are on the road to establish their academy as one that integrates a continuous pipeline of youth into the first team.

Saturday’s match saw TFC play nine of those 12 players aged 24 or younger, and the subsequent drop off in performance in the second half will likely continue in upcoming matches. It takes years to build the stamina to sustain high levels of performance for a full game and to quickly understand and adapt to opposition adjustments over the full 90 minutes. TFC are in the first year of a significant squad overhaul and currently, there is not enough quality and depth in the group to be able to compensate for young players’ inevitable drop-off in games. The important thing to take away is that these young players are getting invaluable experience in professional senior men’s soccer, and they will hopefully get better as the season progresses. In the near future, Bob will get a chance to evaluate which of the young players will be ready for expanded roles in the seasons to come.

3. Luca Petrasso has been the most impressive TFC academy prospect so far this season.

The list of TFC academy graduates currently with the first team is quite impressive: Akinola, Kerr, Marshall-Rutty, Nelson, Okello, Perruzza, Petrasso, Priso and Shaffelburg. While each of Marshall-Rutty, Nelson, Okello, Priso and Shaffelburg have shown glimpses of promise this season and in the past, it’s Petrasso that has been the standout performer amongst the academy players through two games.

Petrasso has excelled whenever he has played in positions that have provided him with more freedom to attack (LW and LWB). His ability to drive forward with the ball and combine with teammates down the left flank has been particularly impressive. He made an impressive run to get his first ever MLS assist in his debut against the NYRB and was very close to opening his scoring account against Columbus Crew on Saturday. Petrasso also has a knack for winning the ball high up the pitch and is able to transition TFC quickly from defense to attack.

However, much like in takeaway #1 above, Petrasso’s impact on the pitch has diminished in the second half of games. It is worth noting that in both second halves of his past two appearances, he has been asked to play a more defensive LB role in the back four (once because Shaffelburg was forced off injured, the second because of a formation change as Bob didn’t like what he was seeing to start the second half vs. Columbus). Despite Petrasso being a traditional LB, the role has surprisingly not suited him as well in MLS - he still has a lot to learn defensively and adjusting to the speed of wingers in the league will be a steep learning curve for the promising, young talent.