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Midfield breakdowns, slow Sebastian Giovinco start at the heart of Toronto FC’s disjointed performances

Two points from two road games is no reason to panic, but Greg Vanney does have problems to solve.

MLS: Toronto FC at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Second game, second point.

Two difficult road games to start the season, and Toronto FC have themselves two points. For MLS, this is by no stretch is a poor return, especially to start the season.

Yet I don’t think many TFC fans (myself included) feel particularly convinced by what we have seen, especially after yesterday’s match in Philadelphia.

Offensively we were disjointed: rushed and forced passes replaced Toronto’s usual offensive brand of sustained, possession-driven pressure. The defensive stability we became so accustomed to last season was not evident. Frantic individual moments (and I am not just blaming Tsubasa Endoh here) and the Union’s effective exploitation of the space between the wing-backs and the centre-backs either side of Drew Moor left Toronto looking shaky, especially in the first half. Toronto were lucky when Alejandro Bedoya failed to convert from the spot but ended up paying for their spotty defending when C.J. Sapong scored the Union’s second goal as a result of an uncharacteristically poor defensive breakdown.

MLS: Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I think it’s worth talking (but not panicking) about Sebastian Giovinco. Even before his injury, Giovinco had not, over two games, influenced matches in any meaningful way. He is far too good for this form to be permanent; it’s early in the season, and both matches have involved difficult playing conditions, but whether it’s the nagging injury issue from the end of last season, having his heard turned by China or something else we don’t know about, his lack of form over the first two (or one-and-a-half) matches is mildly concerning given how central he is to the team’s success.

For me, though, the midfield performance stands out as Toronto’s biggest issue yesterday. Their performance, as a unit, was outright poor. In the first half, there appeared to be no attempt to break down Philadelphia’s defence with smart possession and incisive passing. Passed were rushed first time, in pointless attempts to beat defenders over the top. I love Giovinco as much as the next person, but he isn’t going to win aerial battles against Oguchi Onyewu. Victor Vazquez was particularly guilty of this: for much of the first half he repeatedly tried, and failed, to find Giovinco with aerial balls over the defender.

Michael Bradley wasn’t impressive for the second match in a row: his normal influence, offensively and defensively, was lacking. His passing was sloppy and his defensive work rate was lower than usual. Again, like Giovinco, Bradley’s quality is far too great for this to be viewed as more than a temporary dip in form - it just didn’t help our case for a first win of the season on Saturday.

Finally, the shape the midfield often took caused the ball to be played from deeper areas of the pitch directly to the forwards. Not only did this mean the pass had to be near perfect to reach our strikers, but when - or if - they received the ball, they were often left isolated. I would have liked to have seen Vazquez play in a more advanced role, which would have given Bradley an easier outlet and either created space for the forwards or allowed Vazquez to turn and pick out one of Giovinco, Jozy Altidore or Tosaint Ricketts. Often, Vazquez was closer to the flanks and the lack of a connection between Bradley and the two forwards resulted in hopeless aerial passes, or balls played to the feet of the strikers with no immediate midfield support.

Is it time to panic? Not even close. Two points from two games on the road is not at all a bad way to start the season. The problem is the play, especially yesterday, was not great and, Altidore aside, our key performers have not exuded their normal influence on the last two matches. What I would say, however, is we have come to justifiably but maybe over-exuberantly expect a lot from this team. It’s early, and full cohesion will take some time. I fully expect, with the squad’s talent and familiarity with each other, for TFC to be playing top-quality football soon.