Last March, Nintendo released ‘The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,’ which went on to win every accolade in the video game industry. It was seen as a re-invention of what an “open world” video game could be. There were no limits, no boundaries, very rarely (if ever) did the game say to you, “no, you can’t do that”. And if it did, there was a caveat most times of “well, at least not yet...”
One of the most amazing things from the game was that if you were so inclined, you could begin the game, and after an hour or so, head straight to the final boss. No need for all the tedious tasks and powers to gain. Bypass the 120 hours or so of gameplay, and go straight to the final goal.
Now while this option was available, it was not recommended at all. In order to prepare for the final boss, it took time. You needed to gather the right items, obtain the right powers, take the time to learn your skillset... find out who Link could really be. To his fullest potential. It was better to approach the final boss with an understanding of who you were and what you were capable of by practicing on lesser bosses along the way. Final bosses are no time to be refining and learning on the job.
And that’s the conundrum facing Toronto FC.
Last season’s heroic treble behind them, it’s been clear that the off-season focus and preparation has firstly focused on the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL). Signing players like Ager Aketxe, Gregory Van Der Wiel and Auro has all been done with the hope increasing the talent pool for matches against the top Mexican sides. Matching last year’s treble is the expected baseline for this club, but CCL is the next mountain for Link to climb in the world of Hyrule.
Except there’s one problem.
It’s all come too fast, hasn’t it?
Integrating major pieces like Aketxe, VDW and Auro takes time. You’re re-inventing your entire right side with brand new personnel and schemes. The comfort of last year’s 3-5-2 formation is gone, to be replaced by a 4-4-2, which hasn’t been the recipe that led to many of 2017’s successes. Preseason games only lead to so much, and the first round of the CCL against Colorado didn’t amount to anything more than MLS prep work.
In an ideal world, TFC would have seen Colorado, followed by some lesser side from Central America, allowing a few extra weeks for Greg Vanney to integrate his new signings in slowly, and to build some cohesion. Having a more gradual build-up to a crescendo like Tigres would have been ideal. This team has not yet learned who they are, and what they can be. And then there’s the horrific showing against Columbus at the home opener.
Playing Aketxe and VDW on the right side sounds great for offence, but defence was just a rumour on Saturday. According to stats gathered by whoscored.com, 47% of the Crew attack came against TFC’s right side, compared to only 28% on the left side against Jonathan Osorio and Justin Morrow.
If Columbus sought to exploit that duo with their limited offensive prowess, I shudder to think what the more advanced attacking squad of Tigres could do at BMO Field on Wednesday. One day, Aketxe and VDW will be part of a fluid and balanced Toronto FC squad, but that day is much more likely in June or July. The time for learning what this squad is and what it can do isn’t this Wednesday.
So what then?
Well, as the old saying goes; “Dance with the one that brought you.”
Some of the players in the squad that featured in last year’s MLS Cup run may not have the same pedigree as the newer signings, but they’re familiar. Not only with the system and the formations, but also with each other. And sometimes that’s more important than the name on the back. Think of any pickup game or all-star type of competition you have seen.
Offence comes naturally to players of this calibre, it’s defence where the play suffers. Offence is innate; defence is structures and systems that have to be coached. And unfortunately Vanney has found himself in a fight with a boss that arrived earlier than he would have liked. Poor Link is still wearing the same clothes from the beginning... the new armour has yet to be fitted.
For my liking, go back to the 3-5-2. Perhaps a starting XI of Bono, Mavinga-Moor-Hagglund, Morrow-Osorio-Bradley-Vazquez-Hasler, Giovinco-Altidore. Then find 2nd half moments to work in Aketxe and his attacking skills in a sub for Hasler, perhaps shifting to a 4-4-2 with Morrow dropping back. But ideally, this starting XI gives Toronto FC the comfort of familiarity and one that can be more defensively responsible than what was trotted out at the MLS home opener.
Leaving Aketxe and VDW out of the starting XI shouldn’t be seen as some sort of admission of failed signings or anything requiring pages and pages of analysis. For now, time has forced its hand against TFC, and the club finds itself in a battle that they could use a bit more preparation for. It’s better to go with what you know.
Because unlike Link, the team can’t lick their wounds, file away some learned lessons, and revert to an old saved file to try it all over again at a later time. There’s just the old and familiar or the new and unproven.
Dance with the ones that brought you.