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Unlikely culprits putting dent in Toronto FC’s Supporters’ Shield bid

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Either side of a 4-0 thrashing of New York City FC, the Reds dropped points against two of MLS’ worst teams.

MLS: Toronto FC at D.C. United Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

We had hoped the 1-1 stinker against the Colorado Rapids would be the last game of its type we had to witness this season, but just two weeks later Toronto FC served up another frustrating draw against struggling opposition.

This time the disappointment was mitigated by the fact it came on the road - and an away point can never be completely disregarded - but exacerbated by last-place D.C. United playing the entire second half with 10 men following Lloyd Sam’s sending off before the break.

That the two ties have come either side of a 4-0 mauling of New York City FC, one of the Reds’ main rivals for the Supporters’ Shield, makes for bewildering reading on paper.

In practice, of course, we know that these games present Toronto with challenges they do not particularly enjoy.

MLS: Toronto FC at D.C. United Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

“I think, actually, them having a red card probably gave them the opportunity to unapologetically just defend with numbers, and they did a great job of that,” Greg Vanney said.

“I think we played the same game against Colorado against D.C. today,” Victor Vazquez added. “We tried our things, we tried to find the spaces but when they drop back it’s hard for us, it’s not easy.”

Toronto had 69% of the ball - by far their highest possession figure of the season - but mustered only two shots on target, both of which were saved by Bill Hamid before half-time.

It is clear the Reds remain a counter-attacking team at their best: they have had less than 50% of the possession on nine occasions this season and have won seven and drawn one of those games. Their top-nine games by possession, on the other hand, have delivered a 2-6-1 (W-D-L) record.

Part of that is score effects - when Toronto don’t take the lead early and have to take the initiative, they will tend to have more of the ball - but the contrast remains stark.

MLS: Toronto FC at D.C. United Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

In the games in which Toronto have the greater share of possession, a couple of issues have now cropped up on more than one occasion.

The first is psychological. This was not, in the grand scheme of things, a particularly noteworthy or important game for Toronto - as much as TFC might profess to want the Supporters' Shield, it is the MLS Cup that all of their planning revolves around - and the way they came out of the blocks reflected that.

“We had a terrible start to the game,” Vanney bemoaned. “Totally disjointed - you could feel the momentum against us.”

The Reds did not come close to matching D.C.’s intensity in the early going and it was only after a significant blow had been dealt - that being Kofi Opare’s opening goal - that they seemed to be shaken into life.

When Colorado visited BMO Field it was different, but the same; Toronto started well in that match and scored early, but then took their foot off the gas with the game still in the balance.

MLS: Toronto FC at D.C. United Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The second problem is breaking down the deep defences that Vanney and Vazquez talked about.

This was a major talking point after last season’s MLS Cup final, of course, and Vazquez was the biggest step the club took towards solving it. He has certainly made a difference, helping Toronto turn the screw against the 10-man Vancouver Whitecaps, find their way past the Montreal Impact after falling behind in the Canadian Championship final and maintain an unbeaten record at home.

Having created as many chances on his own (six) as the rest of the team combined on Saturday, he could hardly be blamed for the failure to see off D.C.

He cannot do it alone, though, and Vanney might reasonably be criticized for not putting more attacking talent on the field earlier in the American capital. By the 55th minute, Ben Olsen had taken off Deshorn Brown and left Luciano Acosta up front on his own in a bid to simply hold on for a draw, but Vanney kept his three-man back line in place for another 16 minutes after that.

Three centre-backs weren’t needed. Eriq Zavaleta (who was eventually the man to go off) spent much of his time on the field in the second half in positions like this:

It would have made more sense to have replaced him earlier with Armando Cooper, Jonathan Osorio or Jay Chapman, who could have supplied passes to the overlapping wing-backs - which was always where the space was going to be - that were just that little bit cleaner and quicker.

Alternatively, Nicolas Hasler could have moved inside to make room for Raheem Edwards’ pace on the wing.

Toronto’s draws against Colorado and D.C. are not hugely concerning, in the grand scheme of things, given that they are unlikely to encounter matches like these come playoff time.

With a few more of them to come before then, though, they may define the Reds’ bid for regular-season supremacy to a much greater extent than expected.