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The lessons Toronto FC can learn from their season-opening draw at Real Salt Lake

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The Reds have a few things to work on after their first game of 2017.

MLS: Toronto FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

It was not the opener that we had hoped for. In fact, outside of the first 30 minutes, this match was a complete lunch bag letdown. Wind, altitude and an overgrown pitch slowed the game to a crawl. It also didn’t help that referee Allen Chapman blew his whistle more times than Edward Snowden.

But, like all true champions, the key is how Toronto FC responds to this unexpected result. Every game played is a learning experience, and the next game is an opportunity for improvement. What can TFC learn from its 0-0 draw against an inferior opponent? Below are a few items for consideration.

The 4-2-3-1

MLS: Toronto FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

RSL used this formation to thwart TFC’s mighty offence. It is the same formation that Seattle used in the MLS Cup final. My bet is that it will be what Toronto sees against Philadelphia next week.

Why does this formation work so well against the Reds? It works because its defensive strategy is to clog the middle. As we all know, Toronto’s offensive creativity rests at the feet of Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and, to a lesser extent, Armando Cooper (and soon, Victor Vazquez). These are all players who mainly attack through the centre of the pitch.

When the ball was pushed to the wings, both Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour were mostly ineffective because the RSL formation allowed two defenders to push the wingers tight against the sidelines.

Big defenders

MLS: Toronto FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

RSL put two trees out in central defence. Both David Horst and Chris Schuler are 6’ 4” and close to 200 lbs. With three exceptions, they were able to contain Altidore and limit him to only one shot on target.

Corner kicks into the middle of the penalty area were also repelled before a TFC player could meet them. With a clogged middle and two, strong, physical defenders in the centre, Giovinco played a lot of the second half deeper or wide. This is his natural tendency when things aren’t working the way that they should.

It is also exactly what the opposition is hoping for. You cannot stop Giovinco but you can contain him, and a ‘Seba on the side’ is a lot easier to handle.

Don’t expect the call

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

Throughout the match, the two aforementioned trees held and pulled Toronto’s attackers, interfering with their progression and disrupting the flow of play, but Chapman did not often call them up on it. This happened towards the tail end of last year, as well.

Altidore is a big man. He is a physical player. Consequently, referees are more likely to see him as the aggressor, rather than the other way around. Giovinco also doesn’t get many calls when he is held, likely because the referees see him as going to ground too quickly. He has more luck when he is tripped, when he has already beaten the defender.

So, what to do?

Quick passes: All the excuses aside (wind, opening-game ‘rust’, altitude, etc), Toronto created some fine chances in the opening 30 minutes. This was accomplished through quick, one-touch passes. Creativity and speed are required to break up a clogged middle and keep the opposition guessing.

Speed is the key. It is hard to ignore a flagrant trip when a TFC attacker is already behind the defence, but they have to get behind the defence first. The Reds can facilitate this by knowing where the ball is going before it touches their feet.

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

TFC only had 337 passes in yesterday’s game. Contrast that with top clubs like Chelsea and Arsenal, who routinely have in the range of 500 per match. Put simply, TFC needs to limit the time they spend handling the ball and increase their speed of their play by making the ball do the work.

Constant movement across the whole field: Spread out! Many times, TFC were caught with three or four players within 10 or 15 feet of the ball. This resulted in dense clusters, making it difficult to advance the ball forward.

Granted, the wind played a role in limiting the potential for cross-field passing. But TFC could not keep the opposition off balance because they, themselves were flat-footed. The hope is that Vazquez’s vision will help in this regard, but it is not the only solution.

Prior to Vazquez’s arrival in the starting lineup, Toronto need to show evidence of stronger positional play to limit the number of dropped points during the first quarter of the season.

MLS: Toronto FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Incidentally, these first two points are linked in that quick passes will help create constant movement and constant movement will also facilitate quick passes.

Forget the referee’s whistle: Toronto have to play through the whistle, and not try to play to the whistle. The calls will not necessarily come, nor will they always go TFC’s way.

The expectation should be that the referee’s whistle is covered with masking tape. Doing so will eliminate the frustration experienced throughout the match and allow players to focus their energy on playing with purpose and speed, rather than collecting yellow cards for dissent.

Set pieces are important: Practice penalties, free kicks and corners. Given the possibility of frequent non-calls in the last third of the pitch, the number of free kicks and penalties may be few. But given how aggressively opposing defenders are playing, when these calls do come TFC must take advantage of the opportunities.

MLS: Toronto FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Corners also need to be taken with purpose. Lobbing the ball into the box and hoping for a friendly head or foot is not enough. TFC did a fantastic job of taking purposeful corners in the second leg of the Eastern Conference final. A return to that level of proficiency would be welcome.

It is early. A point is still a decent result. A clean sheet is always a good thing. But champions always look to improve and, more importantly, champions always find a way to win. The next opportunity is less than a week away.