Toronto FC’s 3-1 win over the Chicago Fire on Saturday night was undoubtedly one of their biggest of the season yet, even if it did come against a side badly out of form.
Here are a few details that stuck out to me as the Reds solidified their place at the top of the MLS standings.
A tale of two back threes
The most surprising lineup decision either coach made was the deployment of Bastian Schweinsteiger as a sweeper by Chicago’s Veljko Paunovic.
I would guess that the thinking behind this was twofold. One, Schweinsteiger could sit between the unfamiliar centre-back pairing of Johan Kappelhof and Christian Dean and add an extra layer of defensive security.
Two, Toronto would have to either ask Sebastian Giovinco or Jozy Altidore to man-mark the German - never likely - or allow him to build attacks from deep unchallenged.
Unfortunately for Chicago, the experiment had a number of negative consequences.
With Schweinsteiger taken out of midfield, Toronto were able to find space and move the ball upfield relatively easily. On paper, Michael de Leeuw was the Fire’s third body in the middle of the park, but Michael Bradley could simply drop into the defensive line in the knowledge that De Leeuw would follow him.
This was one of Toronto’s favourite moves; Marky Delgado would receive Bradley’s first pass out and knock the ball around Juninho for Victor Vazquez, who had drifted out to the left. Because Justin Morrow pushed up high and took Chicago’s right wing-back, Drew Conner, with him, that space was completely vacant in the absence of a right-sided midfielder.
The Fire’s problems were not limited to the midfield, though. While Schweinsteiger did step in to make an interception or sweep up on a couple of occasions, his presence in the middle of the back three also meant that there was virtually no cohesion between Kappelhof and Dean.
In this clip, Chicago’s defensive line is a mess from the second Kappelhof steps out to follow Giovinco. The lack of coverage in midfield means that Dean then feels the need to press Delgado, which briefly leaves Schweinsteiger on his own marking Altidore - not a matchup Paunovic will have hoped to see.
The ball hops up on Delgado, so he can’t get a pass through to Altidore while the opening exists. McCarty then spots the problem and dashes back in an attempt to fill the gap, and the Fire get away with it thanks to a miscommunication between Altidore and Nicolas Hasler, who probably would have been better off bouncing the ball back inside to the wide-open Delgado.
Let the clip run for an idea of how Toronto’s back three looked, in contrast; the centre-backs are much closer together and Eriq Zavaleta is much more cautious in the way he leaves the back line to follow David Accam than Kappelhof or Dean had been.
There is never any danger of Chicago getting behind the Toronto defence, which was typical of the first half as a whole. Little more than 20 minutes had passed when Schweinsteiger seemed to ask the bench for permission to roam forwards, and the new setup was ditched completely at half-time.
Toronto’s outstanding movement
TFC’s off-the-ball running and positional rotations when attacking were simply a cut above anything Chicago came up with. Part of that is planned and the result of many hours of work and repetition on the training ground, but part of it is intuitive.
The opening goal was a perfect example of the chaos Morrow and Hasler caused by darting into central areas, particularly in the box, rather than staying out wide.
Conner decides not to follow Morrow inside and essentially lingers around the edge of the box doing nothing at all. When Morrow bounces back out, he takes Schweinsteiger with him.
The left wing-back Patrick Doody, on the other hand, tracks Hasler’s run. That creates the space for Delgado to sneak in unattended at the back post.
Take a look at how scattered Chicago’s centre-backs are when Morrow’s cross to Hasler comes into the area:
Toronto re-took the lead, of course, thanks to another of Hasler’s runs into the area.
Chicago did not know how to deal with those slashes in from the wings; they could not simply collapse and congest the central areas because when their wing-backs came inside, Delgado and Vazquez would drift out to the flanks.
A fresher team?
I had a theory that Chicago’s lack of squad rotation through the first half of the season might catch up with them and there is mounting evidence of that being the case.
To illustrate what I mean here, the top 10 players on these two teams by minutes: pic.twitter.com/9Dp5gIxy8v— Oliver Platt (@plattoli) August 20, 2017
Of the list above, Joao Meira and Brandon Vincent are now injured and Nikolic, without a goal in seven games dating back to July 1, is slumping.
The alarming thing from the Fire’s point of view was that Toronto didn’t have to be at their best to win this game. The Reds’ defensive structure was good and their play when they got into the final third often excellent, but either side of half-time they dropped too deep and were too keen to try difficult passes that would spring counter-attacks rather than keep possession.
That, combined with Schweinsteiger moving into midfield, resulted in a period of sustained pressure for the hosts but they did not look like a team that had won nine in a row on their own turf and would put Toronto to the sword.
De Leeuw and Nikolic did little, the wing-backs were limited - raising the question of why they decided to rely on them for width in the first place - and the Fire benefited from more than a little good fortune to equalize, with McCarty driving past a hobbling Delgado, who had taken a knock, and Schweinsteiger’s shot then ricocheting straight into Accam’s path.
That Toronto were able to visit such a difficult stadium and both start and finish the game looking the more energetic, dangerous side was telling.
Strong finishes are becoming a recurring feature; TFC have scored 15 goals between the 76th and 90th minute this season, the most in the league.
On Wednesday night, we have the penultimate midweek game of the season against the Philadelphia Union. It will be interesting to see whether or not Greg Vanney deems any rotation necessary to keep his team fresh ahead of the weekend trip to Montreal.