As soon as Michael Bradley lifted the MLS Cup after the 2-0 win over the Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC had immediately shifted its attention towards the coveted CONCACAF Champions League in an attempt to become one of North America’s powerhouses.
73 days after that memorable night, Greg Vanney’s clan travelled to Denver to lock horns with the new-look Colorado Rapids in the first leg of the last 16 of the continental championship.
While the real juggernauts of the competition are the Liga MX sides, with TFC facing a potential quarterfinal tie with the two-time runners-up Tigres, the Rapids test was highly important in order to absorb the pressure that this competition brings with it while allowing the players to gain more minutes in their legs ahead of the MLS opener, which is in less than two weeks now.
It was a solid performance from the Canadian side, on a frozen pitch at a -13 temperature, making it the coldest game ever played between two MLS sides, in which Toronto managed to claim their second win ever at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
Seba and Jozy attacking pair, Auro handed debut
Greg Vanney could bank on almost a full squad, with only a few players absent including newly-signed Dutch fullback Gregory van der Wiel (girlfriend’s pregnancy) and central defender Chris Mavinga (injury).
The former LA Galaxy player deployed nine players from the 11 who featured in the MLS Cup final, with Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore forming the attacking pair supported by Victor Vazquez in his usual number 10 role.
Moreover, Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio were handed a rare start together, with Delgado handling the defensive tasks while TFC’s no. 21 was constantly inching up his way on the field, forming a rhombus shape as he allied himself with Vazquez, Seba and Jozy upfront.
Meanwhile, skipper Michael Bradley was as usual filling the holes in between the defensive line with Drew Moor leading the four-man backline which included Auro, who was handed a debut after joining the side from Sao Paulo earlier this month.
Bono a life saver
Anthony Hudson, the Rapids coach, shaped his team in a 3-5-2 formation and despite facing MLS’s best side, he still opted to implement his idea of football: high pressure and attack in numbers with a strong physical presence from time to time.
Toronto leaned back in an organized way, ready to catch their opponents on the break even though the Rapids looked very wary of the threats that Giovinco and Altidore could pose for their backline.
In fact, TFC struggled to break the lines with the former Juventus player forced to attempt a couple of long-range efforts which were easily squirmed by Tim Howard. Both teams showed a bit of rust, it being their first fixture of the year, but the game was still played at a high tempo.
Drew Moor and Nick Hagglund did a great job in switching roles between themselves as they made sure to leave no space for Jack McBean, the Rapids’ link between the midfield and the attack, to prevent them any chance of rushing into their own box.
Moreover, the idea of building up the play from the back is still one of Greg Vanney’s prime ideas. Moor was always seeking to marshall the offensive maneuvers from his legs, despite the high pressure in numbers from their opponents who tried to force Moor and his companions to err.
The Brazilian Auro, who was donning his no. 96 shirt, was constantly switching positions with Justin Morrow. Most likely, Vanney was exploring ways of exploiting the Rapids’ defensive frailties, especially on the outside lanes, and it is no coincidence that the goals came both from right-sided distributions.
However, TFC did not end up trailing in the first half thanks to Alex Bono, who preserved the clean sheet 27 minutes in with a terrific close-range save on Dominique Badji. Although Badji’s shot was straight into the American goalkeeper, the latter’s excellent protection of the goal prevented the Senegalese forward from looping the ball into the net.
After the change of ends, the Rapids were the brighter team, making TFC chase shadows as they were roaming the ball around. However, their decision-making was not at its best and it hindered them from threatening Toronto at all.
But although this may have looked like reactive behaviour from TFC, Vanney’s type of play was actually a proactive one as they were leaving the Rapids to move their backline halfway up the pitch in an attempt to exploit the spaces behind the defence with their pace.
In fact, the first goal saw Toronto win the ball in the attacking third of the field, with Altidore exchanging passes with Giovinco. The latter sent a chipped cross and Osorio, all alone behind the defenders, sent a looping header into the far post, which in my opinion was not strong enough to beat Howard... but we enjoyed it nonetheless.
The goal was greeted with relief as TFC were now exerting their territorial superiority in an attempt to double the lead and practically kill the tie.
Giovinco and Auro were patrolling that right flank continously and they seem to have already assembled a common language between them from which Altidore, Tosaint Ricketts, Jordan Hamilton or whoever plays upfront on his own will benefit.
The Brazilian left his mark on his debut as he chalked up his maiden assist. Giovinco capitalized from his cross with a thumping volley as the Rapids backline were left to stare at the Italian’s classy touch.
The two-goal cushion will allow Vanney to prepare for the second leg in a comfortable way while the technical staff can start to draw out the plans of how to defend and attack against Tigres. Although the Mexican champions bottled a two-goal lead against Herediano, the Costa Rican side should be no match for them in the home leg.
One negative thing from this match are the yellow cards shown to Vazquez and Bradley, which may prove costly later on in the competition.