After Toronto FC’s latest “performance” against New York City FC, I had a Good, Bad & Ugly prepared and ready. But, I could not bring myself to submit it for publication. From an on-field perspective, it was just more of the same. Off-field, it was also more of the same — Vic Rauter taking us on a journey around the world in 90 minutes and Terry Dunfield doing his best Steven Caldwell impersonation, right down to the “quality” drinking game (I stopped counting at nine). Instead, I thought that it would be more productive to help Greg Vanney and the boys by telling them exactly what they need to do to right this listing ship.
Don’t think that the return of Jozy Altidore, Chris Mavinga, Drew Moor and even Justin Morrow will somehow springboard this team to bigger and better things. The problems that are currently plaguing the Reds are bigger than just these four names. They have to be. Otherwise, how else can such an embarrassing season, by one of the “deepest teams in MLS history,” be explained?
Overall, the team’s on-field chemistry is in shambles. The frustration is showing through, loud and clear — creating blame rather than the “all for one” attitude that has been enjoyed over the past two seasons. Last Sunday’s game at Yankee Stadium was the latest, and most obvious, example. Case in point: the repeated image of a frustrated Sebastian Giovinco raising his arms and exhaling deeply as pass after pass missed its desired target. Unlike when the Reds were mighty, this team is just not in sync.
Balls are being lost to empty wings, and giveaways at midfield are happening with increased frequency as red shirts collide with each other repeatedly. On defence, the Reds are not covering missed assignments like in seasons past, and the opposition is exploiting the resultant holes with ease.
Like any relationship, the linkage between players is predicated upon proper communication. Watching the current version of TFC is like watching a troupe of mimes; no one is talking! The players need to correct this. On defence, someone needs to be barking instructions and directing traffic. If he hasn’t already been doing so, then coach Vanney needs to appoint a back-line “captain” to marshal the defensive effort every game. On offence, the team needs to execute rehearsed combinations, complete with hand signals and verbal calls (where necessary). This is not a bush-league tactic. Rather, it is a simple step towards restoring some sense of synchronization while occupying the final third of the pitch.
More alarming than poor communication, the team’s on-field chemistry is also weak at its basic core. Players are not standing up for one another. Recent instances abound where opposing players have taunted and harassed individual Reds without incurring the ire of the rest of the team. As proof, look no further than the uninterrupted chirping that happened prior to the penalties against Dallas and Columbus, as well as the unchecked manhandling of Seba during the most recent Philly game.
The call here is not to play recklessly and foul every man in an opposing shirt. Rather, the call is simply for each TFC player to follow more than just the ball, and react with suitable emotion when others are taking unwanted liberties with their teammates.
Next is the formation. Despite what the pundits may say, Toronto FC doesn’t have the horses to pull off an effective 3-5-2 right now. For most of the season, the back three have been stretched far too thin, and the current wing-backs have not been able to make it back in time. The rest of MLS has caught up. Opposing teams know that, if they play patient football, they can take advantage of TFC’s stretched backline on the counter.
This scenario has been repeated time and time again, and screams for a back four. Once healthy, a back line of van der Wiel, Moor, Mavinga and Morrow (right to left) would be great. With four at the back, it gives these players more of an opportunity to support each other as they gradually return to game shape. Only once they are back in form should Vanney contemplate returning to his favoured lineup of three centre-backs. Even now, with injuries still plaguing the team, a four-man back line of Auro, van der Wiel, Hagglund and Morrow is a better alternative than using three centre-backs or using players out of position.
Next is the roster, itself. TFC have a spate of players who are overpaid relative to their contribution. Removing Ben Spencer’s contract from the picture was a very small step in the right direction. But don’t look for this miniscule salary cap saving to be of any help to the team. For starters, the amount is too small and, secondly, all of the saved ducats were probably reinvested in Alex Bono’s new deal. If the Reds are to improve the talent on their roster, either management has to set clear targets for each of their underachieving players with the ultimatum to achieve or be released, or management must bring in new players immediately.
To accomplish the latter, the other “overpaids” must follow in Spencer’s wake, but with one caveat: the released players must free up enough money to go after the right replacements. These are tough decisions — especially for players that have contributed in the past. But, this is part of the self-inflicted reality that the team now faces. Players that immediately come to mind are Tosaint Ricketts, Clint Irwin, and maybe even Eriq Zavaleta or Ager Aketxe. All these players have either made strong contributions in the past, or have a tremendous amount of potential, but if it were possible to clear these players without incurring additional costs, the team could save approximately $400K against the salary cap. That may be enough to rent one or two replacements/additions during the summer transfer window — preferably a strong forward and/or a back-up defensive midfielder.
Toronto FC’s form over its first 15 MLS games is no longer classified as a “slump.” The lacklustre and sloppy play that we have witnessed has, sadly, become the team’s norm. Consequently, changes need to be made, and they need to be made quickly. Why the urgency? The simple answer is that any change made now will take time to root and germinate. This team needs a top four finish to assure itself of home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs because, outside of Philadelphia and the long-distant CONCACAF Champions League, they have shown absolutely no ability to string together a solid 90 minutes away from BMO Field. The clock is ticking.