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Atlanta’s Miguel Almiron shines brightest in entertaining draw at Toronto FC

The recurring theme witnessed throughout the start of Toronto FC’s 2017 campaign involves Greg Vanney’s Reds serving as frustrated figures against organized defensive units. However, stylistically, Atlanta United FC’s visit to BMO Field presented a contrasting challenge that should’ve favoured last year’s MLS Cup finalists.

But despite TFC’s star-studded attacking options upfront against a fairly open travelling Atlanta side, the Reds designated players were outshone by Miguel Almiron and Hector Daniel Villalba. The former’s appreciation of space exposed TFC’s imbalanced midfield, whereas the make-shift back three, featuring Chris Mavinga’s first home start, were terrorized by the latter’s pace.

Almiron’s threat was evident in the opening two minutes when the Paraguayan drifted goal side of Bradley to received possession to ignite an attack, whilst minutes later dribbling past the TFC captain before being shrugged off the ball by Armando Cooper. This year, teams have preferred to sit back and attempt to nick a goal on the counter attack against the Reds, but Atlanta’s proactive approach flustered the hosts.

One aspect of TFC’s game that’s often overlooked is their vulnerability in central areas out of possession, particularly when Bradley is forced to mark an intelligent no.10 in the mould of Almiron. Likewise, the aforementioned threat of Almiron and Villalba led to Atlanta’s opener, as the former received the ball in acres of space to the left of Bradley and instantly slid a through ball behind Mavinga resulting in Villalba slotting his shot past goalkeeper Alex Bono.

In recent matches, TFC encountered periodic difficulties because opposing forwards and advanced midfielders would solely focus on limiting Bradley’s time on the ball. Here, Almiron dominated the TFC captain in both phases: The Paraguayan harried Bradley when he received the ball, but also cleverly received possession in pockets of space across the final third. Almiron’s teammates also aided the Paraguayan with his defensive duties to force Bradley into conceding possession cheaply, as Martino’s men were comfortable in possession and utilized the pace of the forwards and Almiron’s creativity.

Still, the issue with playing so open against the hosts equally presents space for TFC to utilize in the final third. Ultimately, TFC’s equalizer was a combination of Victor Vazquez’s advanced positioning and the link-up play between Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. It was one of the rare moves where Altidore moved towards the ball – as he often aimed to charge behind the Atlanta back-line or dart into the channels – when Giovinco dropped into midfield.

Altidore and Giovinco were both guilty of spurning opportunities around the box, with majority of the chances stemming from Giovinco’s deep positioning, Bradley receiving the freedom to push forward, and Vazquez playing closer to the opposition’s penalty box. TFC took the lead in the final minutes of the first half via Jeff Larentowicz’s poor clearance that led to Vazquez guiding Steven Beitashour to the byline to combine with fellow wing-back Justin Morrow for an easy tap-in.

Nonetheless, Atlanta equalized within the first minute of the second half following another defensive lapse from Mavinga, which invited Villalba to latch onto a simple long ball over the TFC defence and coolly notch his second goal of the night. Martino’s men increased the tempo of their game and successfully dispossessed Bradley and Vazquez to ignite swift transitional breaks with Almiron being denied twice by Bono.

Where the Paraguayan’s threat briefly decreased in the first half when he dropped ahead of the TFC midfield, the variation in movement towards the channel and beyond the defence reinvigorated Atlanta’s offensive threat. Almiron and Villalba continued to pester the Reds with their direct counter-attacks, but apart from audacious long distance efforts from Vazquez, Vanney’s men were quiet in the second half.

Martino’s men dropped closer towards goal in the second half to limit space behind the defence, but the congested midfield zone, and diligent defensive work from the away side’s wide players nullified TFC’s productivity in the final third. With Yamil Asad wrongly sent off in the final 15 minutes, Martino sacrificed his star players to preserve a point in what will be classified as a remarkable away performance.

Very few MLS sides can come to BMO Field and outperform Vanney’s Reds, but here, Almiron dominated the centre of the pitch, and displayed a proactive method to exploit Bradley’s deficiencies as the sole pivot. Stifling Bradley has developed into a pattern that most sides are leaning towards, and though TFC’s profligacy in the final third may eventually translate into goals, their productivity on both ends of the field can no longer be taken lightly.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2017 in Published Work

 

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

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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Vanney’s Toronto FC lived and died in wide areas at Montreal

Toronto FC’s flexibility has been on full display throughout the 2015-2016 campaign, but the late season shift to a 3-5-2 enabled manager Greg Vanney to get the utmost best from his Designated Players. Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore have been in fine form towards the end of the campaign in a system that provides gusto, width, and defensive stability to a side that’s struggled to identify proper balance throughout its existence.

Yet it took Mauro Biello’s Montreal Impact no less than 15 minutes to exploit the Reds’ weakness. TFC’s discipline and compact shape is one of many improvements witnessed this season, and though they failed to beat Montreal in their predeceasing 4-4-2 diamond, it was peculiar to see Vanney persist with a three-man back-line.

Dominic Oduro’s pace and Ignacio Piatti’s dynamic dribbling were expected to serve as creative outlets for Mancosu’s willingness to run beyond the defence and poach goals. Therefore, the Impact’s wingers were legitimate threats to a TFC back-line that features fairly adventurous wing-backs.

In truth, TFC’s first half downfall illustrated one of the few flaws associated with a three-man back-line. Arguably one of the best left-backs in MLS, Justin Morrow, and Steven Beitashour, were caught out of position in the build up to the goals, but as the match wore on, they received adequate aid from the exterior centre-backs to negate Montreal’s threat from wide.

Vanney didn’t align his side to soak up pressure and play on the counter, and the hosts’ ability to quickly break forward on the counter perplexed the Reds. More so, ineffective performances from Jonathan Osorio and Armando Cooper weren’t beneficial to the TFC midfield, which is another factor responsible for the away side’s poor structure.

First, there was no legitimate press on Marco Donadel from a deep-lying role, and prior to the quick opening goals Mancosu easily stormed past Cooper and Bradley, thus reaffirming TFC’s fragile shape ahead of the defence. Perhaps Vanney wanted to limit Montreal’s counter-attacking threat by opting to retreat into a 5-3-2 base shape, but the hosts’ first half goals exploited poor positioning from the Reds defence – in particular the full-backs.

Montreal’s quick lead may have thwarted TFC’s prepared approach, but it also proved to be the hosts’ downfall. The onus on preventing an away goal became priority, thus leading to Biello’s men subsequently sitting off the Reds’ back three and compressing space in central areas. However, TFC’s production from open-play was erringly underwhelming, often reverting to hopeless long-balls into Altidore.

Biello’s side flustered the away side with swift transitions that were ignited no lower than the half-way line, and as the hosts dropped deeper towards their box, they simply failed to produce a quality chance in the final third. Piatti’s audacious chip via Hernan Bernadello’s outlet pass and Mancosu’s linkup play with Oduro that forced Clint Irwin into a key save, served as the sole chances created subsequent to the opening goals.

Vanney, however, deserves credit for his proactive second half gambles, albeit falling three goals behind before the hour-mark. Montreal’s decision to defend on their penalty box saw Mancosu pressing the ball 30-yards from goal, whilst occasionally aided by Bernier and Bernadello by applying pressure when TFC’s midfield duo monopolized possession. TFC transitioned to a 3-4-2-1 aiming to facilitate the ball to Giovinco and Osorio in dangerous positions, but the former was still forced to drop deeper, whereas the latter remained non-existent.

Afterwards, Vanney summoned Tosaint Ricketts for Osorio, and Will Johnson for Cooper, which flipped their attacking shape by having Giovinco float behind the two strikers. The problem with Montreal protecting their penalty box was that it encouraged TFC’s wing-backs forward. Consequently, with two strikers in the box and the centre-backs were occupied, Bradley and Giovinco received ample time to gain ascendancy.

The hosts proved they’re an efficient counter-attacking side, but their reactivity enabled TFC’s designated players to receive the ball near the box, while the wide players provided the essential width required to unsettle the Impact defence. Although TFC’s 3-5-2 has been a revelation this season, Biello’s wide players temporarily posed several issues for the away side, and they never really identified a solution for Bernier’s advanced positioning.

Nonetheless, Vanney deserves credit for adapting – though it was heavily delayed – and gaining control of the match via slight tweaks to his system and logical personnel alteration. It would be surprising to see TFC move to a four-man defence for the second leg, but it’s evident the Reds need to impose further caution in both phases of the game to progress to the MLS Final.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Orlando City SC 0-2 Toronto FC

Bradley orland

Toronto FC snapped a four game winless streak in Orlando courtesy of two-second half Jozy Altidore goals.

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Greg Vanney made two changes to the side that fell to Dallas last week, recalling Benoit Cheyrou and Robbie Findley to the starting XI.

Adrian Heath transitioned from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 following Orlando City’s three goal defeat to Columbus, replacing Cristian Higuita for Eric Avila, while Tyler Turner started at right back for the suspended Rafael Ramos at right back.

TFC went back to the basics to secure a vital road victory in Orlando: They were organized out of possession, and relied on individual brilliance from their designated players for goals.

Orlando possession/TFC reactivity

Pragmatism was expected from Vanney’s TFC following their first half debacle in Dallas a week prior, and their reactive approach was evident from the opening minute. TFC weren’t eager to push higher up the pitch or swarm the ball to quickly regain possession, thus leading to Orlando’s territorial superiority.

The Reds maintained a low block, dropped into two banks of four to contain space between the lines. Michael Bradley and Cheyrou allowed Darwin Ceren and Amobi Okugo to operate in deeper positions. However, when the Orlando midfield duo moved into the final third, Bradley and Cheyrou quickly harried the opposition.

Orlando’s issue, however, involved Avila and Kevin Molino moving infield into a congested midfield area. Heath’s midfielders often moved into these central positions to receive the ball, and although they found openings in tight spaces, TFC’s back-line cleared their lines continuously.

Orlando’s intent to play through the middle was beneficial to the away side due to their narrow shape. Ramos’ absence deprived Heath’s side of creativity from wide areas, and the production from the fullbacks was underwhelming. Apart from an early Joe Bendik save on Kyle Larin – stemming from Findley being dispossessed in TFC’s half – the Reds’ goalkeeper was untested throughout the first half.

Kaka

In fairness, the match was filled with several marquee players, but none as big as former World Player of the Year, Kaka. Operating in the no.10 role behind the striker, Kaka was likely expected to provide creativity, yet TFC didn’t go about neutralizing the Brazilian.

The common misconception throughout Kaka’s career is that he’s a natural no.10 capable of playing incisive passes to unlock organized back-lines, but his display against TFC vividly epitomized his style of play.

In the first half, Ceren located Kaka in a deeper position, and the Brazilian zipped past three TFC midfielders to combine with Molino to surge clear on goal, before Perquis quickly intervened. It was a vintage Kaka move that lacked a goal: at his best with Milan, Kaka played behind several playmakers and was provided the freedom to use a sudden burst of pace to evade defender.

Likewise, it was one of the rare occasions were Kaka varied his movement in central areas. The Brazilian was floating on the last shoulder of TFC’s defence, equivalent to forward Cyle Larin. Considering TFC’s line sat on the edge of their 18-yard box, within close proximity of the second band, Kaka was isolated upfront, deprived of service into his feet.

Bradley and Cheyrou’s protection of space in the final third improved throughout the match, thus leading to Kaka drifting into the channels for freedom. However, the Brazilian failed to provide a positive influence as his final ball was underwhelming. Kaka was unable to make penetrating runs into advanced zones due to TFC’s organized shape out of possession, and his reluctance to constantly vary his movement limited his threat.

TFC attacks

With Orlando monopolizing majority of possession, it was always going to be interesting to witness TFC’s method of attack. Nevertheless, Jackson nearly scored a remarkable opener from distance, following Larin’s clearance from a corner, but Donovan Ricketts made a key save to keep the scoreline leveled.

Jackson received plenty of the ball down the right flank, but the Brazilian stagnated quick attacks, opting to pass, opposed to taking on his defender. The Reds relied on opportunistic pressing to surge forward on the counter with Bradley and Sebastien Giovinco driving into Orlando’s third on a few occasions, but neither player offered a final ball or finish to punish the hosts.

TFC’s goals followed the same suit. A quick Altidore free-kick saw the American combine with Giovinco, before storming past Ceren and Seb Hines to open the scoring. This was ultimately about the DP’s combining as minutes prior to Altidore’s second, Giovinco and Bradley’s neat combination passes led to the former nearly doubling the Reds’ lead.

Minutes later, Altidore scored a truly remarkable goal. Orlando pushed men forward in search of an equalizer, which could explain why it took Vanney’s men 82 minutes to ignite a counter that didn’t involve powerful running. Cheyrou launched a sensational ball over Hines, and Altidore’s brilliant first touch set the American free to secure maximum points.

The Reds soaked up pressure for long spells, and heavily relied on the quality of their DP’s in transition to punish Heath’s side. Vanney made straight player swaps on the flanks to ensure his full backs were protected, and later turned to Collen Warner to provide additional defensive solidity in midfield.

Conclusion

TFC currently sit at a crossroad. They’re much better in possession this season, but tend to concede goals when their defensive line is higher. On the other hand, although it’s impractical to play reactive football on a weekly basis, TFC have recorded two victories in this manner.

Still, we learned very little about either side. Very few chances were created in open play, with Orlando struggling to get behind TFC’s back-line, whereas the Reds relied on Altidore’s individual brilliance to push them over the line.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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