The first ever Campeones Cup has come and gone. With it went Toronto FC’s final chance to salvage some pride in what has been an atrocious summer. At the post match press conference, coach Greg Vanney admitted that this game was a “microcosm of the season.” It definitely was: poor decisions/inaction by management, an injury to a key player, curious decisions by the coaching staff, repeated lapses in defence, shoddy goalkeeping, poor prioritization both on and off the field, a really bad pitch, and weak excuses in the wake of yet another embarrassing performance.
This was a cup final. This was supposed to be North American professional soccer’s show piece. This was the start of a tradition that both MLS and Liga MX hope will blossom into something akin to the champion vs. champion exhibition matches in Europe. This was Toronto’s chance to regain some of the pride and championship swagger that has been thrown away over the past five and a half months. Instead, it was just another reminder of how far this team has fallen.
For starters, Toronto FC management (and perhaps MLS as well) did not properly prioritize this competition. The local marketing around this event was absolutely non-existent. This was reflected in a stadium that was less than half full, even after the club put out a Groupon offer to subsidize the purchase of as many ducats as possible. A Groupon offer? For something as important as this? For an opportunity to see some of the best that North American soccer has to offer? Pathetic.
The team itself did not seem to take this game seriously until the week of the event. Radio spots, television ads, social media blasts, merchandise sales — none of this was evident until mere days before kick-off. Instead, Toronto FC’s brass kept chasing snipes with the battle cry that the current MLS season is not lost. In reality, the current MLS season is not “lost”; it has been thrown away — and that happened months ago. So, if the club was honest with itself, this single game should have been viewed as the light at the end of a long, dark tunnel — an opportunity to prove that this outfit still has some fight and can represent themselves, this city, and this league with pride. Instead, this match was viewed as an inconvenience. That’s poor decision making, off the field.
On the field, the poor decision making continued. The formation and personnel were wrong to start with. Toronto did not start with four at the back as some are reporting. They played their traditional 3-5-2, with Michael Bradley taking up the centre-back slot between Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund. Bradley did well. He really did. In fact, he was one of the few Toronto FC players who seemed to give a damn. But, he wasn’t being used correctly. The situation called for four men on defence with a couple of thoroughbreds who could run for days to add occasional width to the attack. The better option, from right to left, would have been Auro Jr., Gregory van der Wiel, Hagglund and Justin Morrow. Bradley could have then assumed his customary role as a defensive midfielder and marshalled the transition game to a midfield that should have included Victor Vazquez. As another example of how poor priorities and poor decision making ruled the day, Vazquez was left on the bench. Against one of the best teams in Mexico, Toronto’s best play-maker sat idle? As the coach revealed after the game, Vazquez wasn’t hurt. He was fully fit and available. He just wasn’t used. As Tigres’ tight lines repeatedly stalled Toronto’s attack, the one player who could have lofted the ball over the gridlock with aplomb and savvy sat with a green pinnie around his neck.
Then there was the decision to remove Jozy Altidore in the 57th minute of a 1-0 game. Why? To “save” him for this Saturday’s loss to the Red Bulls? True: Altidore was not playing well. He was petulant and ineffective up to that point. But, with Sebastian Giovinco already subbed off with a reported calf issue, Altidore needed to stay on the field. He needed to be the bull that posted up and created space for his teammates. He needed to be the guy who attracted, and distracted, as many yellow shirts as possible. That needed to be clearly communicated to him and he should have been ordered (not asked) to do so. Tough to execute any mission, let alone that one, from the sidelines.
Early in the second half, a fan right behind TFC’s bench shouted “4-2-3-1”. Despite some of the players turning back to catch a glimpse of this leather-lung, no one on the coaching staff twitched a muscle. But, in hindsight, this fan was spot-on. Toronto should have played four at the back (the four mentioned above), with Bradley and Marky Delgado transitioning the ball to three attacking midfielders in the form of Jonathan Osorio, Victor Vazquez and Lucas Janson and, as mentioned, Altidore should have been up front.
The very end of the event also highlighted the club’s inability to make the right decision at the right time. Toronto FC was hosting the defending Liga MX champions. Toronto FC was fortunate enough to have the eyes of North American soccer focused on them and their stadium. Instead of demonstrating proper sportsmanship and honouring tradition, the majority of the players and coaching staff walked off the pitch and did not stay to watch the trophy presentation. That’s not right. This team needs to be better than that. To be fair, both Michael Bradley and Greg Vanney stayed. In fact, after congratulating the victors, Bradley was the only TFC player who walked to each side of the field and applauded the few (and I mean few) remaining fans. Pity that most of the squad chose not to follow the example set by their Captain and their Head Coach. Maybe they should have been forced to do so.
Perhaps that’s what this organization needs — a little more force. More force in the boardroom, more force in goal, more force on the pitch, more force to capitalize on golden opportunities like the Campeones Cup, more force to face reality and act accordingly.
Oh well... off to Red Bull Arena to catch another snipe.