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Tactical Analysis: Toronto FC 3-1 Real Salt Lake

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Altidore’s brace propelled TFC to their first MLS victory ahead of Club America

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

“We need to be ready for a really big stretch,” - Michael Bradley.

“Friday’s game is first, and its important for us because it will be the start of a stretch where we need to show our improvement.” - Greg Vanney.

That was how Toronto FC’s captain and coach respectively presented this game in the traditional pre-match press conference onThursday.

After two defeats in as many MLS games, the Canadian side needed a win to restore order to their domestic campaign before shifting their focus on a bigger test. Next Tuesday, of course, they host Liga MX giants Club America in the first leg of the Concacaf Champions League semifinal.

Last Friday’s game was the first in which TFC were really aggressive and proactive in their way of play, taking the reins of the game from the early stages with Sebastian Giovinco the sharpest from TFC’s starting XI.

Like what happened in the continental competition, Jozy Altidore scored TFC’s first home goal of the 2018 campaign after converting from the penalty spot before notching his second of the night, resulting in his 50th goal for the club.

Starting XI modifications

At this point, it is not a surprise anymore whenever Greg Vanney decides to experiment with his players on a particular game and the Real Salt Lake fixture was not an exception.

TFC started in a rather flat 4-4-2 with the biggest changes being made at the back. Clint Irwin was given the nod over Alex Bono in goal and his presence was justified with a massive one-on-one save in the 50th minute, which preserved TFC’s two-goal lead at that time.

Having a top goalkeeper between the posts is a must, but having both custodians at such a high level is a luxury that not every club can boast. This was Irwin’s first game since the 2-1 defeat away at the New England Revolution, last September.

In his four-man backline, the former LA Galaxy player Vanney roped in Gregory van der Wiel in an unnatural role, as he featured as a central defender. Some theories about this idea might range from the fact that this might be the only way to insert VDW and Auro Jr together, to the absences of Chris Mavinga and Justin Morrow.

Nonetheless, the Dutch defender showcased all his experience as his calmness and composure led the entire back line to annul any of RSL’s threats, minus their goal in the closing stages. The former Ajax player was essential in his key passes (and 72 touches), which helped TFC to beat the first line of pressure.

At the individual level, he showed that he can play comfortably in any position at the back due to his pace and physical structure (three clearances, two interceptions, two tackles, 3/4 duels won including aerial duels and nine recoveries).

Moreover, Vanney started long-time TFC defender Ashtone Morgan as a left back for the second straight time and for the first time at BMO Field since 2015, and in my opinion, he played one of his best games in a TFC shirt. First of all, statistically he had a solid display with two tackles, one defensive block, one interception, two clearances and five recoveries, most of them in near goal.

In addition, unlike in previous appearances, Morgan was not shy of propelling himself forward and he rendered himself useful on Altidore’s second goal, when his cutback (or poor first touch, whatever fits the bill) set Jozy up to send his shot into the far corner. He won’t be the starting left back/left wingback once Morrow is healthy, but if Friday’s display is a prelude to his season, then Vanney has gained an extra quality player in his roster.

One last observation from this lineup is Nicolas Hasler’s role. He started as a right midfielder in a 4-4-2 with the task of cutting inside and allowing Auro to exploit the vacuum left by the Liechtenstein international. I like Hasler most when he exchange passes in quick succession usually with Giovinco or Altidore and this allows him to exploit the spaces between the lines. In fact, against RSL he had a shot off target which he earned from shaking off his marker in the box.

Quality core

TFC’s quality lies mainly in the midfield and up front. Starting from the fulcrum of the team, Michael Bradley’s game against RSL was the emblem of his style of play. His role as an anchorman in front of the back line is vital to Vanney’s clan as he provides security and experience; he can move in between the central defenders transforming it into a three-man back line and can also send long balls which overcome the lines of pressure formed by the opponents. On Friday, he led everyone in touches, passes, passes completed, and recoveries for example, underlining his importance in TFC’s drives.

Obviously, the peak of TFC’s quality is in the offensive pair. Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco are by far the best tandem in MLS and silverware is their greatest advocate.

I always remain surprised at how both players play in a simple way which always leads them to effective outcomes. Seba receives the ball 30 metres away from goal, dances his way into the box or just on the edge of it before sliding the ball towards Altidore whose knack for unmarking himself has led him to prove himself as TFC’s main goalscorer. This is without mentioning the American forward’s ability of pushing his men forward when in trouble on the other side.

Friday’s man of the match in my opinion, Giovinco, played one his best games in these first outings, showing glimpses of the tricks he used to put up more frequently in his early days with TFC. Numbers speak for the Atomic Ant, including the successful dribbles and chances created which we all hope he can replicate next Tuesday.

Oh, and I almost forgot — do not let Seba take penalties against Nick Rimando anymore.

Also, a word about Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio’s performances. Delgado’s ability to provide continuity to the team’s play is essential as he proved with numerous successful passes throughout the game which led to clear-cut opportunities, such as Jozy’s at 13’ — which he hit straight into Rimando.

Osorio, for his part, was sometimes sloppy with the ball, being dispossessed several times. In his defence, whenever he was in possession, RSL continued to outnumber him, wary of his technical prowess which throughout Friday’s game earned TFC numerous fouls in key areas. Nonetheless, he remains one of TFC’s best players in the early part of the season as he contributes successfully in both the defensive and offensive ends of the field.

Positive substitutions

One feature in which Vanney flourishes is his substitutions. The players he introduced against Real Salt Lake all had a positive impact and incidentally, all had a key touch on the third goal, scored by Tosaint Ricketts.

The Canadian, fresh from scoring the winning goal for Canada against New Zealand during the international break, sent the ball into an empty net after he caught RSL on the break.

Afterwards, Jay Chapman, who had the task of a left midfielder in order to widen the pitch before exchanging with Giovinco, received the ball before unlocking Spaniard Ager Aketxe who did not hesitate to let fly a sublime shot which struck the woodwork before dropping on Ricketts’ feet.

With such an effective bench at Vanney’s disposal, TFC continue to highlight their strength in numbers.