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Toronto FC’s determination to dominate road games is now paying off

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The Reds are the best away team in the league, and they’re not counter-attacking.

MLS: Toronto FC at Los Angeles Galaxy Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s another Toronto FC achievement for the books: they are the only team to string together two six-match winning streaks in a single MLS regular season over the past decade (and probably longer).

One started in April and the other in August, which feeds into the narrative that TFC have been a class above the competition all year long.

But that may not quite be true. Upon further examination, the current winning streak - the one that could be extended to seven games on Wednesday night against the Montreal Impact - is far more impressive than its predecessor.

Back in April and May, four of Toronto’s six consecutive wins came at BMO Field. Of the two on the road, one came courtesy of a quick-fire pair of Tosaint Ricketts goals in the final 10 minutes against the Columbus Crew and while the other, at the Seattle Sounders, was well-earned, the margin of victory was a solitary Jozy Altidore goal from the penalty spot.

This time around, the balance of home and away matches has been equal. There has been no late surges, victories squeaked out with a bit of luck or even a one-goal game.

This winning streak is better than the previous one, and the work of a better team.

Toronto’s progress has been most apparent away from BMO Field, where they have nearly doubled their win total in under a month.

For a number of reasons - travel chief among them - home advantage weighs more heavily in MLS than most other leagues. Away teams have won 22% of games played so far this year; in 2016, it was 19%. The lowest that figure has dipped in the Premier League, La Liga or the Bundesliga over the past five seasons is 26% and it usually hovers around 30%.

Since 2008, fewer teams have won more than three road games in a single MLS season than have not, but Toronto have just knocked off three in a row by an aggregate score of 10-2.

The easiest way to play away from home is to counter-attack.

That works roughly as follows: the away team allows the home team to have most of the possession and challenges them to break through a low defensive block. When the home team turns the ball over, the away team launches fast, direct attacks towards goal into the space vacated by midfielders and full-backs that have ventured forwards.

Counter-attacking can be effective because only a select few teams have the creativity and the quality to possess the ball and find a way through stubborn defences week in, week out. Many will make mistakes and leave themselves vulnerable to those quick breaks.

Its downside, though, is that it is an inherently reactive strategy and its success is partially dependent on how well the home team plays.

For some time, Toronto were a counter-attacking team on the road. On the opening day of the 2016 season, for example, they went to the New York Red Bulls - the reigning Supporters’ Shield winners - and won 2-0 despite completing what would be a season low of 87 passes in the Red Bulls’ half. It was a classic smash-and-grab.

(The best Toronto ‘highlight’ MLS could find from the first half of the match was Sebastian Giovinco shooting from the halfway line.)

Greg Vanney knew his team needed to be capable of more than that to truly rank among the best in the league and, over the past 18 months, has gradually encouraged his players to attempt to take more control at other stadiums.

It has been frustrating to watch at times: in games like the one back in July against FC Dallas, when Toronto were missing a couple of key players, you wished they would just sit deep and counter rather than attempting to assert themselves against a good team while under-strength.

But every failure is an opportunity to learn and as the 2017 season enters its closing stages, Vanney’s persistence and patience appears to be paying off.

Nowadays, Toronto’s strength on the road comes from their use of the ball.

That is not to say they are necessarily a keep-it-at-all-costs team in the image of Pep Guardiola: in the wins over the LA Galaxy and Chicago Fire, they had less than 50% of the possession across the 90 minutes.

The quality of their possession is more important than its quantity.

It all ties in together. Better passing and movement makes Toronto more likely to create good chances, but also means they turn the ball over less in areas from which the opposition can launch potentially dangerous counter-attacks.

When the Reds force a turnover in the opposition half, they are capable of exploiting an unset defence with quick, one and two-touch passing moves:

But when they win the ball deeper or there is not an immediate route to goal available, their patience, movement and circulation of possession has been outstanding during this winning run. They are making full use of the width of the pitch to shift their opponent around, with Marky Delgado especially instrumental in that process:

The goal is a simple, more direct move, but it came with LA trying to recover from a period of chasing Toronto’s tails.

While Toronto’s raw possession numbers are not particularly noteworthy, what is more telling is that they have completed 224, 223 and 208 passes in the opposition half in their past three road games, each above their season average. That is despite the fact they have taken the lead on each occasion, which usually results in less possession thereafter.

Out of possession, the Galaxy game was their best of the season on the road. That is partially due to the Galaxy being a terrible home team, of course, and was also helped by the front two of Ricketts and Victor Vazquez, who defended from the front more actively than Giovinco and Altidore might in an ordinary regular-season game.

But their defensive shape was noticeably better against Montreal and Chicago, too, where they conceded only on a late set-piece and a wild bounce. That, again, comes back to Toronto’s improved use of the ball and the situations in which their opponent was gaining possession and starting their attacks.

The difference between Alex Bono having a couple of things to do (Chicago and Montreal) and nothing at all (LA) was that Toronto cleaned up their own errors. As good as Michael Bradley is, he occasionally still does this:

Eliminate those and you’re in a very, very good spot indeed.

On an ordinary day, Toronto FC open training to the media for the final 15 or 20 minutes of the session. Quite often, at that point, they are scrimmaging and Vanney will stand on the touchline, talking his players through their progression of the ball up the pitch and occasionally stopping play to explain or correct something.

The swift, fluid passing patterns that have been on display over the past few weeks do not just happen: they are the product of practice and repetition all year long that is now starting to pay off in unfamiliar environments as well as the one they know well.