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Victor Vazquez is changing the way Toronto FC play

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The shape the Reds moved into for last season’s playoffs is evolving as a result of the Spaniard’s introduction to the team.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

After Toronto FC’s 0-0 draw with Sporting Kansas City, I asked Greg Vanney if, despite the goalless tie, we had seen evidence of what Victor Vazquez will bring to the team in the number of potential ‘second assists’ he provided - that is, the pass before the pass that results in a goal.

“You see how, from my perspective, that [Vazquez] knows what he’s going to do right when the ball comes to him when it gets on his foot and off his foot quickly,” Vanney replied. “His ability to find gaps around the field.

“Part of my criticism of our group is that the ball didn’t move fast enough at times and we didn’t play the ball into those sort of gaps quickly enough or with the right confidence for someone like Victor to get on the ball in those dangerous areas and make the next thing happen. But there were glimpses in this match where I thought, especially when Jozy [Altidore] came on, you could see the three of them - the three being Victor and Jozy and [Sebastian Giovinco] - combining a little bit in some of those tighter areas that then gave Raheem [Edwards] a little extra space.”

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Toronto FC Gerry Angus-USA TODAY Sports

He added: “The combination when those three were close enough together to work with each other was good, and a lot of that is because Victor is very comfortable in between lines because he has his ideas early. And then his ability to be precise with his passing is something that will definitely help us, but we haven’t had a lot of experience with the three of them on the field together - actually, I don’t even know if we’ve had a few training days together with all three of them sharp and on the field together, so it’s something that will come.”

With no interruptions in the form of international commitments or injuries, Vanney got the training time with his three top attacking players he had desired ahead of the second home match of the season against Atlanta United. It paid off; Vazquez had both of the ‘second assists’ for Toronto in a 2-2 draw the Reds only failed to convert into a win because of some poor defending.

For Toronto’s first goal, Vazquez makes a run behind the defence that Armando Cooper either did not see or decided he could not pick out. Having shed his marker by moving across the pitch, though, the Spaniard then checks back to pick up the ball in space:

It’s outstanding work from Altidore, but aside from the technical proficiency all three players show there is also a level of intelligence that is a cut above the norm in MLS. As soon as Vazquez chips his pass in, Giovinco knows where he needs to be and Altidore knows he will be there.

The second goal does not involve the two strikers as heavily, but is another example of Vazquez’s ability to be patient under pressure, keep his head up and pick the right option.

Vazquez has been influential in both of his first two starts at BMO Field, and is averaging 14.3 successful passes ending in the final third per 90 minutes. That is comfortably the highest number on the team, with Cooper on 10.5 and Michael Bradley on 10 in second and third place respectively.

But what is even more interesting is that he is changing the way Toronto play as a team. It was initially imagined that Vazquez would slot in pretty seamlessly into the Reds’ 3-5-2, likely replacing Jonathan Osorio as the most advanced central midfielder. Instead, he operated more like a third forward against Atlanta, turning Toronto’s formation into a 3-4-3.

Vazquez’s average position was only slightly deeper than Giovinco’s and he operated some way in front of Cooper and Bradley, who became a midfield two. This move came to nothing, but serves as an example of how the shape generally looked:

In the first half, it worked beautifully. Toronto were dominant and could have made the game safe by half-time, but instead went in at the break with only a one-goal lead due to some (more) wasteful finishing and a defensive breakdown that allowed Tito Villalba to score with the only shot of any kind - on or off target - Atlanta had in the opening period.

The second frame wasn’t so good; Gerardo Martino went like-for-like by switching to a 3-4-3 and it proved a smart move, inhibiting Toronto’s attack. Vanney may have been able to make adjustments quicker had he not had to deal with Chris Mavinga’s meltdown and the fracas around the Yamil Asad incident, but by the time TFC got back on top they were running out of minutes.

Vanney regarded it as the best game Toronto have played all season overall, though, and the expected goals numbers agree. Whether it leaves the Reds more open defensively - particularly on the road - remains to be seen and will be tested in Columbus on Saturday. A talented Atlanta team, however, did not create all that much beyond two goals that were, from Toronto’s perspective, completely avoidable (and by no means the fault of Mavinga alone).