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TFC’s road to success involves a shift in gears against Sporting Kansas City

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Losing a championship game is difficult to cope with, but coming within inches of a historic first MLS Cup title on home soil is borderline traumatic.

TFC’s 2016 playoff run will live in the memories of both the players and Reds fans for the unforeseeable future. On a frigid winter night at BMO Field, Michael Bradley and Justin Morrow’s spot kick misfortunes unravelled a dominant display from the hosts.

The former, in particular, produced a heroic captain’s display ahead of the Reds back-four, which justified the American’s discomfort post-match.

“In a perfect world you would congratulate them,” Bradley said while slumped in his stall at BMO Field, trying to put into words the pain of an opportunity missed. “But that’s not how it goes, you know? Had we won, it’s not the first thing on your mind. Congratulations to them.

“[But] we were so, so, so determined and wanted so badly to finish this season off in front of our fans in this stadium holding up that Cup. To know how close we were to doing that and ultimately miss out?

“That’s not an easy one to swallow.”

Friday’s home opener against Sporting Kansas City features two of the four remaining undefeated MLS teams, but it’s also TFC’s first match at BMO Field since that heartbreaking winter night. Greg Vanney will aim to vanquish last year’s shortcomings with a positive opening night performance, and with close to a fully fit squad the Reds – on paper – are favourites.

However, Vanney’s men endured a turbulent start to the season, despite avoiding defeat in their opening three games – two without 2015 MVP Sebastian Giovinco. Still operating in their base 3-5-2, TFC are encountering the same issues in the final third that arose in last year’s playoff run.

As a whole, however, they simply haven’t performed at their peak level. This isn’t an issue, nonetheless, given all three games have been played on the road. More importantly, unlike previous seasons where the Reds may have succumbed to defeat, Vanney’s men earned points following fairly mediocre performances.

The Reds struggled to create chances in open play at Real Salt Lake, and virtually scored from two set-pieces against a defensively inferior Philadelphia Union outfit. Last week, TFC were clearly superior at Vancouver, but only created clear cut opportunities subsequent to Brek Shea’s dismissal.

There has been one change to the core team from last year’s remarkable season, which has witnessed Johnathan Osorio drop to the bench for the newly acquired Victor Vasquez. Meanwhile, the thought of an Altidore – Giovinco partnership upfront remains more of a dream than a reality as the latter returns from a thigh injury.

Altidore, on the other hand, was TFC’s standout player in last year’s playoff run, and has started the season as the club’s in-form player. Altidore’s ability to drop deep to link play, or play off the shoulder – along as in the channels – and use his brute strength to shrug off challenges has been the Reds’ main threat in the final third.

The other positive feat in TFC’s attack stems from the left wing-back position where Morrow has performed superbly as an attacking outlet. Morrow scored a pivotal goal against the Union, whereas youngster Raheem Edwards created Vasquez’s winner at Vancouver two weeks ago.

Elsewhere, the most disappointing aspect throughout three games is the TFC midfield. Michael Bradley is still a liability out of possession when he protects the back four, whereas opposing sides have instructed their advanced midfielders to limit the American’s threat from deeper zones.

Vasquez still requires time to settle into a new environment, and despite scoring the winner at Vancouver has rarely influenced. The dynamism and tenacity Armando Cooper injected into the Reds midfield last year has also went anonymous – the Honduran international is guilty of over touching the ball whilst conceding possession and silly fouls in dangerous areas in the opening three games.

Osorio, nonetheless, is the real loser, here, as the Brampton native blossomed into one of MLS’ promising young talents in recent seasons. The 24-year-old consistently retains possession in the final third, can play a clever incisive penetrative balls behind the opposing defence, and offers the guile and level of unpredictability Vanney’s men have lacked this season.

Also, lack of width from the right flank – though Tsubasa Endoh’s attempt was a failed experiment – leaves TFC’s attack lopsided and extremely narrow in large phases which caters to the opposition, who often sit deep and congest the midfield zone. A moment of individual brilliance from TFC’s star attackers is always possible, but there’s an evident lack of balance amongst the attacking quintet that Vanney has yet to solve.

Due to the amount of depth TFC possess throughout their squad, these issues aren’t as significant as it would be in previous seasons. Slow starts to the season aren’t unusual, and the ability to swap players and alter systems is an advantage many teams throughout the league lack.

“Winning the game is a priority, but making sure that we get through the weekend and don’t put anyone in a tough situation also is a priority,” said Vanney ahead of Friday’s home opener.

It’s evident TFC’s star players – excluding Altidore – have yet to discover their best form, but that’s the challenge Vanney must embrace. Last year, the TFC’s managers task was to build an identity and stability throughout the starting XI. And although Vanney was capable of instilling tactical flexibility amongst the aforementioned traits, minimal improvements within the XI offers room for skepticism.

TFC’s squad depth may have improved, but is the XI significantly better than last year? The other issue that may arise throughout the season – mainly if TFC fail to identify a solution to their blunt attacking play in the final third – is whether Vanney can guide the Reds to another level without major acquisitions.

Expectations have been set, and the disappointment surrounding the opening three games suggests the overall culture throughout the club has improved for the better. TFC now consider themselves genuine contenders and overall winners, and while the reliance on Altidore and Giovinco’s greatness upfront remains, there’s ultimately no room for a substantial setback.

Nevertheless, TFC’s ability to grind results is a facet great teams possess, and this slow start may simply represent an additional sign of growth en route to a title-winning season. The opportunity to overcome last year’s heartbreak begins Friday night, and though TFC’s opening three games offered minimal signs of improvement, Vanney’s Reds have nothing to worry about…. yet.

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Posted by on March 31, 2017 in Published Work

 

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Giovinco and Piatti’s MLS dominance defines different breed of No.10’s

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The admiration of the traditional No.10 remains one of the iconic facets in modern football. A player of this mould is highly appreciated for his selfless ability to consistently create chances for others, but the constant evolution in philosophies throughout the sport ensures the significance of the role can decrease during certain spells.

But following the turn of the century, the box-to-box midfielder’s knack of covering ground on both ends of the field was pivotal in the popular 4-4-2 shape. Elsewhere, the deep-lying creator quietly gained prominence as well, but there’s something about the 10 jersey that always grabbed the eye.

Frankly, the diminutive creative players capable of slaloming into open space and creating key goal-scoring chances remains the most revered role in this sport. It’s the popularized jersey number that represents a side’s key player – if you go through youth systems across the world that don’t assign kits based on positions, the No. 10 is arguably the most popular jersey number apart from seven and nine.

More so, teams switching to a more expansive 4-2-3-1 reinvigorated the significance of the roles. The 4-3-3 presented too much congestion in central areas for intelligent playmakers to find space, and it was rare to see these players operate in wide areas during the mid-2000’s. This is not to say that creative players didn’t operate in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3, but they were strictly all-round dynamos opposed to solely basing their game around creating chances.

Perhaps there was a fear of being heavily reliant on one-source of creativity, whereas the emphasis on power and dynamism ensured the role was hardly decisive in most systems throughout the game. The other factor was that these decorated playmakers lacked the versatility to influence a match in a similar manner across the front-line – to be frank, they were solely creators.

In truth, the no.10 role has diversified over the years, and it’s difficult to identify various men that define the position. Mesut Ozil is possibly the only top-class player that ticks all boxes: a selfless, slender magician that solely strives in a central position, yet equally capable of making improving his side’s overall play by placing teammates in goal-scoring positions via perfectly weighed passes.

It’s the selfless intent to create space for others with his movement combined with the precise incisive passing that’s reminiscent of a throwback playmaker. Nowadays, a second striker playing off the centre-forward will be deemed a no.10: Wayne Rooney operated in this role during the latter stages of Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure, but he was more about goals than creativity.

Then there are players utilized as pure destroyer to negate the opposition’s deep-lying playmaker, but still capable of transitioning into a third central midfielder. Oscar was expected to thrive in this role for Chelsea but solely excelled with the former, whereas Toni Kroos’ success under Jupp Heynckes – largely remembered for his impact against Real Madrid in the 2011-2012 Champions League semi final – involved the latter.

In Italy, there was a spell were trequartistas – the term used to describe a playmaker in Italy – were merely energetic runners. Subsequent to Wesley Sneijder serving as the catalyst for Inter Milan’s successful second half of their treble season, the likes of Fredy Guarin and Kevin-Prince Boateng’s ball-carrying skills linked midfield and attack, whereas Juventus relied on Andrea Pirlo’s passing from deep areas – incisive passing to unlock deep defences within the final third was a rarity.

During Jose Mourinho’s second stint at Chelsea, the Portuguese manager offered a concise, yet valid description to define the role.

“For me a No.10 does a lot of things, with the ball and without the ball. So for me a No.10 is a very special player in my team,” said Mourinho.

“A No.10 for me is an eight-and-a-half when the team loses the ball, and a nine-and-a-half when the team has the ball. Who is my perfect No.10? Wesley Sneijder and Deco. They could defend, get in the box and finish.”

Though the conclusion to Mourinho’s comments were slightly incorrect – Deco and Sneijder received free roles as their teammates were responsible for their defensive work – it goes to show that the focus on pressing and defensive structure has largely extorted the requirement of a natural playmaker.

Even in MLS, a league driven by a creative player in the hole is now shifting in this direction. Look no further than the Eastern Conference final between Montreal Impact and Toronto FC – a heated rivalry, labeled the 401 Derby, that will ensure a Canadian team will make an appearance in MLS Cup for the first time in league history.

More interestingly, is the fact that the two-legged fixture will feature two of the best players in MLS, who were oddly snubbed of deserving MVP candidate status. Likewise, they both wear the No.10 jersey, but are far from genuine creators. Giovinco and Piatti are within the top three playoff scorers, both recorded 17 goals in regular season play to finish third behind lethal finishers in David Villa and Bradley Wright-Phillips, but don’t feature within the league’s top ten key passes-per-game figures.

Giovinco, however, recorded 15 league assists, which leaves many to believe he’s a creative lynchpin, but averaging an MLS-high 6.3 shots per-game illustrates he’s more of a second striker than a creator. Both men are fielded in the front-line of their attack, and are equally not responsible for defensive duties due to the midfield base protecting fairly mediocre back-lines – although Piatti does his fair share of tracking attacking full-backs before sprinting forward to lead counter-attacks.

Greg Vanney’s TFC side showcased tactical flexibility throughout the 2015-2016 campaign, and the switch to a 3-5-2 improved the overall balance of the side. The wing-backs offer width and remain in advanced positions, the midfield is built around a combination of Johnathan Osorio’s guile and Armando Cooper’s dynamism ahead of Michael Bradley, whereas Jozy Altidore’s improved form creates vacant space between the lines for Giovinco.

Although Giovinco is capable of locating pockets of space to receive the ball around the opposition’s penalty box, the 29-year-old’s most dangerous in transition when he instantly offers an outlet in the channels to subsequently run at defenders. It’s the Italian’s individualism that solidifies his match-winning ability, and offering the last year’s MVP space to run at defenders or time to shoot from distance is risky.

“What’s going to make you win is having that focus for 90 minutes against a player like Giovinco, who is one of the best players in the league and who could turn the game in his favour in a moment,” said Impact manager Mauro Biello.

“This is something that’s shared; it’s not just one player on him,” said Biello. “Against a player like that, you need cover from the side, from the front. “You don’t want to give him space. We’ve been watching video over and over and the games where he’s been most frustrated are the ones where he has numbers around him and where he doesn’t get space to operate.”

Piatti, on the other hand, is cut from a similar cloth, relying on an elderly midfield trio to disrupt the opposition in central areas, whilst protecting the back four before breaking swiftly on the counter attack. Operating as a left forward in a 4-3-3 with license to drift into central areas, Dominic Oduro’s pace and Matteo Mancosu’s willingness to run behind the defence has seen the Impact transition into one of the best counter-attacking sides in the league.

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While Piatti possesses the skill-set to create countless chances for his teammates, it’s the ability to dribble past defenders with ease – only Chicago Fire’s David Accam averaged more than 2.6 successful dribbles per game – and locate open space in the final third that elevates his threat. Following Giovinco’s earlier brace against the Impact earlier this year, the past two meetings against TFC – albeit the Reds operating in a 4-4-2 diamond – Piatti has been involved in all three Montreal goals.

“One of his greatest strengths is what people don’t sometimes see, what he does before he gets the ball,” Vanney said of Piatti’s anticipation. “He’s a guy who’s very, very clever about his moments when he’s helping the team defend, when he sees the team is about to win the ball.

“He quickly transitions into an attacking action before anyone else on the field is transitioning. He is already transitioning, which is what he wins, fragments of time, seconds, above everybody anyone else. That’s where he gets his space, where he gets his separation from defenders. Then what we all see is his ability to take on defenders one-on-one and score.”

First, Piatti received too much space to run at the box to curl an unstoppable effort towards the far corner. Then, the Argentine drifted laterally to the right channel to pick up the ball and charge towards the box, and was eventually clipped down to earn a penalty that he subsequently converted. Finally, Montreal defeated TFC with 10-men when Piatti drifted into the final third and latched onto Oduro’s link up play to fire a low shot past goalkeeper Alex Bono.

Last season, the Impact dispatched of TFC within 45 minutes in their single-knockout clash, but 12 months later, both sides have slightly evolved their overall game. Though TFC’s production in open-play substantially improved this season, the sudden prominence in counter-attacking football has witnessed both sides provide a platform for their star No.10’s to flourish.

Ultimately, the tie widely hinges on which side can negate the opposition’s No.10’s production within the final third. Regardless of the result, an MLS finalist will feature a creative player that serves as an “x-factor,” that can win a match on his own via goals, opposed to an outlet capable of making his teammates better.

With the influx of foreign players, the new admiration for dynamic pressing, and tactically astute managers plying their trade in the league, the brief era revolving around selfless no.10’s in MLS could slowly come to a halt. Still, the impressive individual statistics recorded by Piatti and Giovinco, along with their dominance over the past two seasons suggests the stylistic culture amongst creative players is shifting to MLS.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Kevin Payne & Ryan Nelsen: Toronto FC’s Breath of Fresh Air

Six seasons and still without a taste of post-season soccer; it simply isn’t good enough for the city of Toronto. After another season filled with jeers and a half empty home stadium, Toronto FC (TFC) finished the season in last place with 23 points, a massive 30 points out of a playoff spot. It was the team’s worst point tally since their inaugural season six years ago and a change in management was imminent.

Despite being crowned Amway Canadian champions last season for the fourth consecutive year, Canada’s first Major League Soccer (MLS) team has found life difficult in the North American league. TFC play their home games at BMO field, located at the Exhibition Place in downtown Toronto. Players and managers have arrived and departed, but Toronto’s hopes of having a successful franchise has failed thus far.

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CBC soccer columnist Ben Rycroft says TFC’s underachievement begins and ends with their owners, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment (MLSE).

“The problem with TFC is that it was run by people who either didn’t understand the game, or [didn’t] understand the game in North America,” Rycroft says.

In late November, MLSE hired Kevin Payne as the first president of TFC. Payne’s role at the club is equivalent to Bryan Colangelo’s with the Raptors and Dave Nonis’ with the Leafs. Both men are in charge of issues on the court/ice, while Payne will be involved with issues on the field and the business aspects of the club.

Payne loves to build winning sides, as evidenced by his time with D.C. United. During his 17-year tenure as president of the Washington club, they claimed four MLS Cups and a Confederation Of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football Champions Cup. Now his vision is to turn this organization around and provide the fans with a successful team. TFC has conceded the most goals in the league over the last two seasons; drastically improving the defence will be the first part of his vision for the club. Payne’s former club played a possession-based style of soccer, and the new TFC president would like to bring that mentality to Toronto, along with implementing a core system the team can grow with.

Sportsnet Managing Digital Editor, John Molinaro, says Payne’s track record in DC shows he has the pedigree to be successful at the club.

“He clearly has an eye for coaching talent and I think he has a good understanding of building a team,” he says.

The dismissal of Paul Mariner as head coach would lead to the surprise of the offseason: the hiring of Ryan Nelsen, who at the time was playing for English Premier League side Queens Park Rangers (QPR). He was chosen in early January as the man to lead TFC into the future. Along with making this team playoff contenders, Payne and Nelsen were tasked with changing the way the club handles transfers.

Last season, then-coach Aron Winter, tried to implement a tiki-taka style, similar to how famous Spanish side Barcelona play. This failed miserably, as Winter didn’t possess players capable of succeeding in such a technical system. Payne’s vision is also all about building a young core of talent that can improve every year.

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 With TFC making changes behind the scenes and in their philosophy as a club, are they headed in the right direction, that is, a club aspiring to win trophies?

Heading into their seventh season in MLS, the goal for TFC is to make their first playoff appearance. The move by Payne to appoint Nelsen, a 35-year-old, with no managerial experience, has left many optimistic fans puzzled. Rycroft admits that he was very skeptical with the Nelsen signing because he was still playing for QPR.

“He has no experience coaching, and generally a player that becomes a coach, does best when he takes over from playing with his old squad,” Rycroft says.

Although Molinaro feels one day Nelsen will become a good coach, he shares Rycroft’s concerns.

“He’s never coached before, he’s never taken any coaching courses or acquired any coaching badges, so he comes into this quite unqualified,” Molinaro says.

“Considering where this franchise is; after six years without a playoff appearance, it would have been a better idea to bring in someone with more experience and a track record of success,” he says.

Kenny Dalglish, Pep Guardiola and Vicente Del Bosque are a few coaches that have had great managerial careers after retiring from their playing careers.

“This is a different scenario. He got his start in the league, but it has been a long time since he has played here and the league has changed,” Rycroft says.

Although the Nelsen hiring was peculiar, there’s no guarantee that his tenure will be a failure.  Nelsen was arguably QPR’s best defender this season before his departure, and his experience as a player can surely have an affect on his players.

Rycroft says that Payne brings a soccer management background that Toronto FC has never really had.

“Payne has shown he has a plan, and as someone with a real soccer background you have to give him the benefit of the doubt for now,” Rycroft says.

“He has a plan and a vision, and so far has shown himself willing to make tough decisions to execute it.”

Payne has already made some key changes since joining the squad, including acquiring homegrown talents Kyle Bekker and Emery Welshmann in the MLS SuperDraft, along with allocation money.

The MLS SuperDraft is an annual event in which all teams select players that have graduated from college or have been signed by the league.

According to MLSsoccer.com, allocation money is a resource available to all clubs in addition to their respective salary budgets.

Soccer Newsday columnist Sonja Missio, says Payne is bringing all of his old chums with him, to build a team that he’s comfortable with.

“It’s clear that Payne has a vision in mind, I’m just suspicious as to what that vision is, and is he flexible to change it if or when it doesn’t work?” Missio says.

“It’s not just about winning games, it’s how he will, can, or should assist in the development of Canadian soccer culture in Canada,” she says.

In their six-year existence, despite the few good moments, TFC has consistently underachieved. The club has gone through seven managers in six seasons, and none have managed to win more than 50 per cent of the games during their respective tenures. The club is coming off its worst season since it was founded, recording only five wins, and their average home attendance decreased by 2000 tickets.

Former TFC goalkeeper Milos Kocic stated in a January 2013 interview with the Globe and Mail that some of his teammates would laugh after games, even after defeats.

“It’s better for me to leave, to go somewhere else where I’m going to be appreciated,” Kocic said in the interview.

Aron Winter being tactically inept – not realizing this players needed a simpler system to operate in, Paul Mariner’s inability to cope with injuries to veteran players Danny Koevermans and Torsten Frings, and some questionable decisions regarding player sales from MLSE, including homegrown heroes Julian De Guzman and Dwayne De Rosario all played a factor in TFC’s recent poor form. Over the years, TFC has lacked experience, vision and stability behind the scenes.

While the players and coaching staff certainly deserve most of the blame for TFC’s downfall, Missio says MLSE didn’t properly assess the team they possessed.

“It’s like a family getting a puppy for Christmas and not being able to take care of it come February,” she says.

“Oh sure, it’s fun and exciting at first, but you have to know how to look after it…MLSE had all the best intentions, but they were in over their heads,” Missio says.

The introduction of a president has been a bright spot for the club. Payne has done a great job handling one of the club’s main issues recently, bringing in effective Designated Players; most have been well past their prime and not worth the expense. Heading into the new season, TFC was faced with decisions to make on these players, and Payne handled the situation well.

According to the 2012 MLS rules, the Designated Player rule allows clubs to acquire up to three players whose salaries exceed their budget charges.

This is where the allocation money gained in the draft comes into play.

Payne told the Toronto Sun, “The allocation money will allow us to potentially bring in a small Designated Player– a younger player but one with some real upside,” Payne says.

“We can now potentially bring them onto our team not as a DP any longer because we can buy their contract down with allocation money,” he says.

Last season TFC had three DP players, in captain Torsten Frings, 36, Danny Koevermans, 34 and Eric Hassli, 31. Hassli was brought in to provide depth in attack but spent most of the season sidelined due to injury, Frings, is the best midfielder on the team and Koevermans is the prolific goalscorer.

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Former Toronto FC midfielder Torsten Frings

The question Payne had to consider was, could the oldest combination of DP players in MLS lead this side to a playoff appearance in the near future?

The answer was no.

Hassli pushed for a move away from the club, and Payne was willing to let him go for a second round draft pick. Considering he was making $790 thousand US, roughly $370 thousand of which was affecting the club’s salary, it was a smart move.

Frings announced his retirement in February due to a hip injury suffered last season. He felt stepping away from the game was not only better for his health but also the team’s development.

Koevermans’ future still looms in the air as he recovers from an anterior cruciate ligament injury he suffered last season. Considering the limited options upfront, it would be suicidal for TFC to trade their most prolific striker. Since joining the club in 2011, Koevermans has netted 17 goals in 26 league appearances. Bringing in two young DP’s more likely attackers, and retaining Koevermans, and the experience he brings, would not only save TFC from more financial woes, but could also benefit the club in the short and long term.

There’s a lot of pressure, expectation, and optimism as the new MLS season unfolds. Die-hard TFC fans will be hoping to see the club do much better than last year’s dismal campaign.

Daniel Kwasny, a member of TFC’s supporter group, U-Sector, says that Payne and Nelsen will succeed, if MLSE don’t interfere with their plans.

“I feel that Payne and Nelsen’s arrival is a positive move for the club, and if MLSE allow them to see out this project, the team will be an MLS contender in the next three years,” Kwasny says.

TFC will need to perform at a higher level to gain back the large number of fans who have turned their back on the club, but the pressure will certainly lie on Payne and Nelsen’s shoulders.

“From what I’ve seen thus far, TFC have improved tactically, their work rate has increased, and we’re competing against the top sides in the league,” he says.

This new era can end in two ways: the first being that the team improves and potentially fights for a playoff spot. This would give the fans an incentive to back these two men and would certainly mean their long-term vision is working.

On the other hand, this season could turn into a nightmare, with similar results and continued struggles between coach and players. This would result in fan backlash; not only would we see more empty seats and fewer supporters, but it would also put a blemish on Payne’s outstanding track record.

“I would only expect them to be a bit more competitive this year and improve on what they did last year,” Molinaro says.

“In 2014 they need to be not only challenging but also making it into the post-season, because by then Kevin Payne would have had enough time to implement his plans fully,” he says.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2013 in Published Work

 

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