Greg Vanney has often been referred to as a mad scientist with the way he picks his lineups. Yesterday, it was not hard to imagine Toronto FC’s coach in a lab coat as he stitched together a back line made up of three fullbacks and a goalkeeper making his first start of 2018.
It was a back four united by necessity as a result of injuries. Gregory van der Wiel, signed as a right fullback, played as a centre back. Ashtone Morgan, who started just three games the past two seasons, got the start at left back. Clint Irwin played at BMO Field for the first time since July.
The resulting recipe was surprisingly successful, as the back line turned out to be key in Toronto’s first win of the season against Real Salt Lake. It was a reminder not only of the depth this team has, but also of the tactical flexibility many of its players possess.
Toronto’s back line as a whole averaged a 90.8% pass completion percentage last night as they helped Toronto pin back RSL throughout the match. These weren’t just lateral passes either, they were aggressive ones that created all kinds of problems for the visitors.
“I thought all the guys who stepped in, sometimes in positions they are not too familiar in at least for [van der Wiel], I thought he did really well,” said Irwin after the match. “I thought it was a pretty good performance from some guys who maybe haven’t played in a combination like that before.”
Vanney’s biggest experiment last night was the aforementioned repurposing of van der Wiel as a centre back. It wasn’t a complete gamble, van der Wiel originally played in the middle of defence during his time with Ajax, but had appeared only as a fullback for Toronto FC.
Van der Wiel has been a bit of a polarizing figure since he joined the club. Given his resume, fans expected him to quickly become an attacking threat down the flank — a mirror of Justin Morrow on the left. That hasn’t happened yet.
But while playing a new role last night the Dutchman certainly demonstrated his added value to the team. When Toronto had possession he covered the right flank, which allowed Auro to push further forward, then tucked into the middle when RSL had the ball. His passing from the back, meanwhile, sprung several Toronto attacks.
“He’s super comfortable on the ball and playing out of situations under pressure,” said Greg Vanney in his post-match press conference. “He’s a good defender so I thought he did a good job tonight.”
One of the concerns for this club going into the season was a lack of centre back depth. That is especially true with Nick Hagglund reportedly suffering a hamstring injury in training. Having a player like van der Wiel that can step in and deliver in a pinch is huge.
“Will we see it in the future? Maybe, why not,” said Vanney. “I think it gives us something that’s a little different. Versatility is something that’s common within our group.”
On the opposite side of the field from van der Wiel, for the second straight match, was Ashtone Morgan. This was Toronto FC’s longest serving player’s first start at BMO Field since a 2015 win over the Red Bulls. You would have to go back even further, however, to find one that was better than this.
For those who have forgotten that Morgan was always an MLS calibre player who had his career sidelined by injuries last night was a reminder. In place of the injured Justin Morrow, Morgan was aggressive down the right flank and it paid off in a big way. Just before halftime his cutback — call it a mistouch or whatever you want but the intent was there — created space for Jozy Altidore to bury the winning goal.
“From the day I got here it was more important to get the approval of [Morgan] and [Osorio] and the Toronto boys than anybody else because they’ve been here from the start,” said Altidore. “To see him play today, every time Ash is on the field I want to play well for him because he means a lot to this city and he means a lot of each one of us.”
There were three other components of this back line as well, and while their names won’t appear as much in the game stories they deserve plenty of credit as well. Clint Irwin, specifically, made a couple of key saves to keep Toronto in front.
Drew Moor, meanwhile, has taken a lot of flack lately for looking off the pace this year. But as a leader of the back line he is still unmatched on this team. He had the group well organized throughout the game and made van der Wiel’s job a lot easier. Auro, meanwhile, has been Toronto’s newcomer of the year so far with the consistent quality he has displayed on the right.
Last night’s game was an important result for Toronto FC’s confidence. But also of importance was Vanney learning he had some new options across the back line. Who knows when centre back van der Wiel will be called upon next, but Vanney now has yet another card up his sleeve.