Toronto FC conceded a second half lead against the Chicago Fire to suffer their third consecutive loss of the season at Toyota Park.
Greg Vanney was able to recall Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore to his starting XI, while Justin Morrow formed a makeshift centre-back partnership with Nick Hagglund.
Former TFC striker Quincy Amarikwa led the line ahead of Shaun Maloney in Frank Yallop’s 4-4-1-1. Harry Shipp and David Accam operated on the flanks with Matt Polster and Michael Stephens sitting in midfield.
TFC controlled possession for large portions of the match, but they rarely offered a threat in the final third, and Chicago continuously exploited space in wide areas.
Chicago down the left
The main storyline over 90 minutes, and TFC’s season thus far, has been the Reds’ vulnerability in wide areas. With Mark Bloom unavailable, and Vanney short of centre-back options, the TFC manager was forced to persist with Ashtone Morgan and Warren Creavalle in fullback roles.
But Chicago’s intent to press high, and isolate Creavalle, in particular, was evident from the second minute. Joevin Jones dispossessed Creavalle in TFC’s half and stormed into the box to squeeze a shot on goal, but Joe Bendik pushed the left-back’s effort aside. The away side received an early warning within minutes, which is why it was odd to see both full-backs push forward.
The Fire enjoyed the better chances throughout the match, opting to surge forward through quick transitions opposed to well-worked passing moves. On three separate occasions, simple long outlet balls in transition were played into the left channel, but neither Accam nor Amarikwa could solve Bendik.
Ultimately, the two goals Chicago scored were created down the left, with Jones dispossessing Robbie Findley before combining with Maloney for the first, and the former Wigan Athletic midfielder gaining a yard on Hagglund to snag the second. Creavalle, not a natural fullback, constantly bombed forward ahead of the speedy Accam, and the home-side’s main source of attack were ignited in the vacant space.
Another interesting feat regarding TFC’s struggles this season has been their reinvigorated 4-3-1-2. The system, however, deprives the Reds of natural width – they also possess one natural winger – which explains why the fullbacks are instructed to maraud forward into advanced positions.
However, the fullbacks lack adequate protection when the Reds drop into their natural shape and sit in front of the ball. TFC tend to defend with seven men behind the ball, with exterior central midfielders, Benoit Cheyrou and Jonathan Osorio responsible for pushing into wide positions without the ball.
But when the duo is unable to move into wide positions, neither Giovinco, Altidore, nor Findley appears interested in fulfilling their defensive duties, enabling the opposition’s fullback’s freedom to surge into advanced positions. The home side, on the other hand, dropped into two narrow banks of four with the midfield band remaining compact with the back four to limit space between the lines. Chicago’s back four proactively pressed TFC’s attacking trio when they received the ball with their back to goal, preventing the forwards from turning towards goal, as Altidore’s influence was scarce, and Findley’s link up play was severely underwhelming.
TFC issue in the final third
One of the evident changes under Vanney, helped by off-season acquisitions, involves the Reds playing proactive football. Under Ryan Nelsen, TFC often defended in deep banks of four with hopes of punishing teams on the counter, and struggled to break teams down in the latter stages of the season.
Where Vanney has assembled an XI capable of retaining the ball for long spells, TFC still encounter the issues that thwarted last season’s playoff run. Giovinco’s space in the final third will decrease with every passing week, but without natural width in the XI, the onus on Bradley, Cheyrou, and Osorio to create chances, and offer adequate service for the front three is significant.
Bradley and Cheyrou were involved in a lovely move for Giovinco’s equalizer, and the latter lobbed a ball into the channel for the Italian to score the second. Still, this is a TFC midfield trio filled with passers, but lacks energy and strength to serve as an additional outlet to unlock organized back-lines.
Although the lack of pressure on Bradley enabled the American to connect short passes to set TFC forward, the buildup often halted in the middle third. Considering Bradley has struggled this season, mainly against teams that press him aggressively, Vanney’s reluctance to start Collen Warner in his natural role is peculiar.
With Bradley higher up the pitch, TFC then receive the energy and running Osorio doesn’t – and may never – offer at this stage of his career. Considering another lacklustre attacking display, the trio of Warner, Bradley, Cheyrou must cross Vanney’s mind, as powerful runs from deep and penetrative balls in the final third have been non-existent.
Nevertheless, Creavalle’s second half sending off was the defining moment, as TFC was forced to finish another match with 10 men. While it’s uncertain that the Reds would claim a point had Creavalle remained on the pitch, Jeff Larentowicz’s well-taken free kick following the TFC defender’s dismissal, enabled the Fire to sit deeper and play on the counter.
Vanney replaced the ineffective Findley with Jackson, moving the Brazilian to right back, as TFC operated in a 4-3-1-1. The TFC manager also summoned Bright Dike for Osorio, but Yallop, swapping Amarikwa for Kennedy Igboanaike, was the key change.
The away side pushed men forward in search of a winner, thus leaving space for the speedy Igboanaike and Accam to exploit on the counter. This played into the Fire’s hand, as they were equally poor in open play, and simple balls into Igboanaike in the channels constantly stretched TFC’s back-line.
A move in the 83rd minute summarized Chicago’s threat subsequent to Creavalle’s dismissal. Igboanaike was released into the left channel before laying the ball off to an onrushing Accam, but the Ghanaian fired his shot over the net. TFC were unable to trouble Chicago’s back four, and frankly wasteful finishing prevented a Fire onslaught.
TFC squandered a glorious opportunity to obtain valuable road points against a mediocre MLS side, but the loss equally highlighted the current issues at the club. Still, both side’s relished quick transitions, and were unconvincing when faced with the task of breaking down the opposition’s defence.
Chicago’s attacks were calculated, as they constantly relied on their pacy attackers to surge into space behind the TFC fullbacks. More so, TFC’s midfield balance isn’t correct and the current system hasn’t reaped rewards on both ends – they’re vulnerable out of possession, and lack conviction in attacking areas.
Perhaps the Reds miss their sidelined first team defenders, but this performance serves as an indicator that Vanney must show tactical flexibility going forward.