Michael Bradley admitted it afterwards: Toronto FC’s 5-3 loss to the Montreal Impact was deceiving, and not in a way that flattered the visitors. The Reds were 5-1 down after 51 minutes last night and at that point the scoreline looked like it might only get worse.
Toronto rallied late and in the end, even briefly threatened to miraculously get back into the match. But while that spirit can be praised, it does not do much to cover up what went on in the first hour of the game.
Let’s try to figure out exactly what happened.
Explaining the team selection
“To give up five goals means that everybody was off a bit on the day, including myself in setting up the team,” Greg Vanney said.
The lineup - and the flaw in the plan - was mostly defined, I think, by Vanney’s desire to give Armando Cooper a start and an opportunity to show he can still contribute this year.
That’s not to scapegoat Cooper: he wasn’t great and probably didn’t do enough to earn many more minutes this season, but he was far from the worst player on the pitch.
Cooper started in an unfamiliar position ahead of the midfield and just off Tosaint Ricketts. This turned out to be a mistake; in the absence of Victor Vazquez, Jay Chapman should have taken up that role.
I would expect he didn’t because, again, Vanney wanted to get Cooper in the lineup and adding Chapman would have further disrupted the usual configuration of a team already without its three best attacking players.
Marky Delgado is instrumental to the team’s movement of the ball in the attacking half and Jonathan Osorio has been playing as well as anyone over the past few weeks.
Both of those players are most effective, though, when they are feeding players in front of them rather than being tasked with playing the final pass. Though Cooper has a bit more penetration to his game, he is still not a pure playmaker.
It meant that Toronto struggled to find that pass behind the defence and started taking too many touches in the final third, the inevitable result of which - particularly after they had fallen behind - was too many bodies ahead of the ball.
Take a look at Michael Bradley’s position when Montreal’s counter-attack for the third goal began:
That happened because Toronto passed the ball across the edge of the box, couldn’t find a way through and needed Bradley to try the kind of attacking run that would usually be the domain of a wing-back or an attacking midfielder.
The same thing happened in the loss at FC Dallas, with the only difference on that day being that the crucial absences were at wing-back.
Spencer over Hamilton
This is a recipe for pissing people off: a 21-year-old Canadian who has shown some promise remaining glued to the bench behind a 22-year-old non-Canadian who, to be frank, is yet to show much of anything at the MLS level.
But seeing as pissing people off is not, to my knowledge, a goal for Vanney when making substitutions, what’s the rationale here?
Back at the start of the season, when Toronto were not-so-subtly making it clear that they wanted to sign Ben Spencer to a first-team deal but something (I still don’t know what) was holding the process up, the reasoning was that he was someone who could be a backup for Jozy Altidore.
That means holding the ball up, providing a physical presence up front, giving Toronto a chance to play the more direct pass upfield when needed, getting on the end of crosses and so on.
There’s a couple of clues in there as to why Spencer was preferred to Jordan Hamilton last night.
I don’t think Vanney sees Hamilton and Ricketts as particularly compatible because they both like to play high up the field and sniff out chances in the box. Spencer is theoretically more likely to occupy defenders in one-on-one battles and set screens for others to play off, helping Toronto find a way through a packed defence.
He is also four inches taller than Hamilton and - again, theoretically - more of a threat when crosses come into the box.
“It took us a little while to recognize and get the point across that we needed to put crosses into the box and get them up high - we’ve got a very tall guy up there in Tosaint who can jump through the roof,” Vanney said.
“We needed to get a little bit more service into the box and threaten their goal a little bit. I thought there was far too much possession and cut back and things like that.”
Like Ricketts, Spencer got on the end of two or three balls into the box late in the game but, unlike Ricketts, his headers lacked accuracy.
The issue with all of this reasoning is in that ‘theoretically’ word. Spencer’s strengths might have been more suitable for the situation on the night than Hamilton’s, but so far he’s struggled to actually exhibit those strengths in MLS games with any consistency.
Should we be worried?
Vanney and Bradley, of course, had to put on their humbled faces afterwards, take responsibility and pledge to bounce back a better team.
But I’m not sure this game will have really taught Toronto much. Perhaps the most important lesson - or reminder - will have been that if things go wrong early, you’ll only make them worse by pushing “too early, too hard”, as Vanney put it, to get back into the game.
Especially against perhaps the league’s best counter-attacking team.
Otherwise, though, this was one of those classic snowball games: Toronto made a couple of silly mistakes, were punished by a clinical Montreal team and then went chasing the game without their three best attacking players. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
This game was lost in the early errors more than it was in what happened afterwards because it set the table for Montreal to do what they do best.
Personally, given he has been a model of consistency stretching all the way back to the start of last season’s playoffs, I’m prepared to give Eriq Zavaleta a pass and simply be thankful he got it out of his system before it really matters.
The same goes for Alex Bono. He has won a lot of games this year and not really experienced what it feels like for everything to go wrong in a high-pressure situation. Now he has, and he’ll be better for it.
It was a rough night, but were any of the foundations of what a full-strength Toronto FC team does to win games exposed? I don’t think so.