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Resilient Sporting KC stick to the script to frustrate Vanney’s profligate TFC

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Toronto FC’s issues around the opposition’s box was on full display in a scoreless draw with Sporting Kansas City. Greg Vanney’s men haven’t scored a goal from open play against 11 men since last year’s second leg conference final triumph, and their profligacy around the box is developing into a noteworthy concern.

The first half, however, was a rarely intriguing tactical battle at this level that witnessed both sides negate the oppositions threat in contrasting manners. TFC preferred to press higher up the pitch with Tosaint Ricketts and Sebastian Giovinco closing down the centre-backs, while Victor Vasquez or initially Michael Bradley pushed forward to limit Ilie Sanchez’s time on the ball.

TFC wing-backs Steven Beitashour and Raheem Edwards also aggressively stepped higher to prevent the Sporting KC full-backs from receiving space to drive forward, whereas the midfield battle was fairly scrappy. Meanwhile, the shuttlers encountered difficulties retaining possession and gaining ascendancy in central areas due to the aforementioned congestion, which therefore stifled the creative players from both sides.

The away side, on the other hand, retreated into a 4-1-4-1 out of possession with the wide players sitting narrow, and striker Dom Dwyer remaining goal-side of TFC captain Michael Bradley. It was another ploy to force the TFC centre-backs to build attacks, whereas Bradley’s inability to alleviate Dwyer’s pressure ensured the Reds were deprived creativity in deeper midfield zones.

This was essentially a major issue for the hosts with Giovinco starved of service over lengthy periods, and Jozy Altidore’s capability of dropping into the midfield zone to link play was required. Likewise, the intent to mark out Bradley has been successfully utilized by all TFC opponents this season, thus forcing the hosts elsewhere to move forward.

Peter Vermes’ men struggled going forward due to TFC’s pressing and were unable to launch proper counter-attacks. But similar to TFC, the midfielders couldn’t link play with the attackers, and the ploy to push the wing-backs forward to provide natural width – wide forward Soony Saad and Gerso Fernandes moved centrally to combine with Dwyer – backfired due to Beitashour and Edwards’ defensive discipline.

Nonetheless, TFC created the better chances in the first half through width from the left flank, and Giovinco’s diverse movement to pull the away side out of position. It took nine minutes for Giovinco to drop beyond half to receive the ball and combine with Edwards down the left and the move resulted in Vasquez locating Beitashour unmarked in half space, but his pull-back for the aforementioned Italian was scuffed. Another move following a rare Bradley switch of play saw Edwards identify Giovinco between the lines, but once again Beitashour’s great positioning was wasted following the right wing-back’s pass behind an unmarked Vasquez.

The Reds main threat involved Edwards – an academy product enjoying his first full start for the club – driving down the left flank. The left wing-back bamboozled Graham Zusi with a clever turn and played a pass to Giovinco in a pocket of space, which led to an opportunity that Jonathan Osorio scuffed wide of the net. Afterwards, Edwards play Ricketts free down the left channel, but the Canadian international’s poor decision-making halted a promising move.

Another variation of TFC’s dominance down the left occurred in the latter stages of the first half when Edwards moved to an advanced central position to drag Zusi with him, while Nick Hagglund stormed forward down the left channel. This was risky due to Gerso’s threat in transition, but it also pegged the attacker into his own half away from the isolated Dwyer. These positional alterations eventually witnessed Hagglund sneak past Gerso to cross the ball to Osorio in the six-yard box, but the TFC midfielder skied his shot over the net.

Although Sporting KC improved in the opening 15 minutes of the second half via high pressing – it led to a poor Bradley pass that nearly resulted in a Dwyer winner – TFC still found joy through Edwards down the left flank. However, the TFC homegrown product wasted a golden opportunity and was unable to connect his crosses with teammates.

Conversely, with the away side tiring throughout the second half, the TFC midfield suddenly gained control of the game, whereas Giovinco began to receive passes between the lines before charging towards the box. Vermes’ men posed a few saves from Alex Bono in the final half hour, yet TFC were unable to test Sporting KC keeper, Tim Melia, despite ample territorial dominance.

In another match this season where a narrow back-line left the Reds perplexed, Vermes’ approach can be classified as an efficient defensive scheme several MLS teams may adopt on their travels to BMO Field this season. In truth, it limits TFC’s option to utilize their pace on the counter-attack, and with no players capable of building attacks from deep in the current setup, this appears a logical method to disrupt arguably the best offence in the league.

Abandoning the system that provided last year’s success would be extreme, but it’s certainly time to consider instilling flexibility to a rather bland Reds attack.

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Posted by on April 1, 2017 in Published Work

 

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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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TFC hit MLS Cup road-block against robust Sounders defensive display

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The interesting feat about the Seattle Sounders’ MLS Cup triumph involved Brian Schmetzer’s men failing to record a solitary shot on target. The result didn’t justify TFC’s territorial superiority, but the Sounders remained resolute out of possession, containing the Reds’ main attacking threats.

This wasn’t a memorable cup final and fairly scrappy at times, which in truth, benefitted Schmetzer’s men who aimed to disrupt arguably the best attack in the league. 18 post-season goals prior to the final highlighted TFC’s strength around the box, but Seattle had only conceded three goals in that same span – this was a great advert of attack vs. defence. Yet, following an impressive defensive display at Portland, and TFC’s difficulty scoring from open play against the Montreal Impact, Schmetzer’s decision to base the attack solely on the counter was logical.

Seattle’s 4-2-3-1 features an additional central midfielder ahead of Cristian Roldan and Osvaldo Alonso to free Nicolas Lodeiro of his defensive duties in certain phases of the game. If Lodeiro was caught out of position centrally, one of the spare midfielders would press Justin Morrow. But the main intent of the Sounders approach was to clog space in central areas.

Where Seattle retreated into their half in a variation of a 4-5-1, Nelson Valdez worked hard to limit Michael Bradley’s threat from deep. Therefore, TFC’s best moments were quick direct moves between Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco. Within the opening minute, Altidore flashed a shot wide of the Sounders goal via Bradley’s deep free-kick, whereas the Reds’ best chance stemmed through quick combination passes between the strike duo and an advancing Jonathan Osorio.

Schmetzer’s reactive approach meant the full-backs rarely ventured forward, and it was interesting that Vanney didn’t encourage his attacking players into wide areas to create overloads considering protection was scarce. Essentially, the key to Seattle’s successful approach was the standout performances from centre-back duo Chad Marshall and Roman Torres.

With help from Alonso, Giovinco was constantly harried and forced into mistakes by the Seattle centre-backs. Altidore, on the other hand, posed issues when he dropped into midfield to receive the ball and run at defenders, but for the most part, the Sounders back-line coped with the American internationals physicality around the box.

Meanwhile, though the away side failed to record a shot on target throughout, the reliance on the attacking trio presented nervy moments for the TFC back-line. Valdez was the key man dropping off into midfield to play Jordan Morris and Friberg into the box, but both moves were dealt with by the TFC defence. Valdez’s selfless play was pivotal to the rare moments Seattle offered a goal threat in normal time, and his early departure forced Schmetzer to rejig his attacking approach.

But the decisive element of the match witnessed both sides struggle to impose their dominance for extensive spells in the attacking third, which is equally associated with standout performances from Bradley and Alonso’s destructive role ahead of the back-four. Likewise, there were clear tasks from the opposing managers to negate the hold midfielders threat from deep. No player recorded more tackles than Bradley and Alonso (6), and the latter’s four successful take-on’s from midfield was a game high.

While Valdez monitored Bradley, Jonathan Osorio quickly closed down Alonso when the Sounders midfielder received possession. Osorio nicked the ball off Alonso around the Sounders penalty box and immediately played Giovinco into the box, but the Italian oddly squandered his effort. As the match wore on both men received more time on the ball to start passing moves, but preventing Lodeiro and Giovinco from creating chances led to an uneventful final.

Neither manager made significant tactical alterations in the second half, and replaced the tired midfield starters with role players possessing similar traits. Morris’s pace behind the defence helped Schmetzer’s men alleviate lengthy spells of possession following Valdez’s departure, but the rookie lacked the required support to fluster the TFC defence.

Meanwhile, Vanney also turned towards pace upfront when Giovinco was unable to continue. Ricketts easily utilized speed to evade weary Seattle challenges and also created the best chance in extra-time that forced Sounders keeper Stefan Frei into an incredible save to deny Altidore.

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Seattle weren’t convincing from an attacking sense, but they offered a definitive attacking-minded approach in transition that was stifled due to TFC’s spare numbers at the back. But the performance vividly illustrated Seattle’s commitment and defensive discipline in tricky away games throughout the post-season.

Overall, the result does put TFC’s 3-5-2 under the spotlight for potential criticism. Although Seattle deserves credit for their work-rate out of possession, TFC once again failed to score from open play against a midfield devoting their time to congest central space ahead of the box. Certainly fine margins separate goals from near misses, but Giovinco and Altidore’s quiet final’s outing reiterates the notion that defence wins’ championships.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2016 in Published Work

 

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MLS Cup success would elevate Sebastian Giovinco towards local immortality

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Although Toronto FC players have harped about collective squad unity during MLS Cup media day, it’s difficult to overlook Sebastian Giovinco’s aura during the Reds’ playoff run.

TFC’s privileged to host the biggest game in the club and country’s soccer history, and it’s ironic that the smallest player on the pitch’s significance can inevitably determine the final result. With the opportunity to give the city of Toronto it’s first championship in nearly 25 years, and who better to do it then arguably the best player to ever play in the league’s history.

Although Giovinco didn’t win the MLS MVP award this season, the public outcry when the announcement was made suggests that perhaps the Italian should have retained that honor. But what awaits Giovinco on a frigid Saturday night could be the biggest moment of his career.

The Italian was never a core component during his tenure at Juventus, and he’s failed to make a regular contribution to the Italian national team. But the 29-year-old can call BMO Field home. A club that appreciated Giovinco for his many strengths, and provided the Italian a platform to dominate a league that craved a genuine star

That’s what simply increases the significance of the final: a possible sellout home crowd consisting of 36,000 fans anticipating one more moment of Giovinco individual brilliance that would shift the state of Canadian soccer forever. In ways, the similarities between the Italian and the Canadian soccer landscape is conspicuous. Never really provided a chance to flourish, but once under the spotlight, could evolve into something great.

Giovinco’s arrival to TFC came at a dark time at the club. The ambition to become an MLS superpower hit a roadblock following the Jermain Defoe experiment, and though stylistically the duo’s compatibility was low – given the talent around the Englishman – the belief that TFC could outdo their error offered skepticism.

But with Michael Bradley already at the club, and the arrival of Jozy Altidore, TFC’s designated players were approaching the peak years of their career, thus ensuring longevity. Two seasons together with consecutive playoff appearances – a milestone for a club that once appreciated simply fighting for post-season contention – deems the early stages of the project a near success. Put simply, Saturday night’s clash with the Seattle Sounders represents the final test.

Where the designated players deserve credit for their influence throughout, manager Greg Vanney is also responsible for building a stable side filled with tons of depth – which could be a decisive factor Saturday night. TFC have made many smart moves following the Defoe failure, but Giovinco’s impact across the league sets the bar.

The mazy dribbling, unthinkable ability to evade several challenges in tight spaces, while proving to be a devastating finisher separates Giovinco from the rest. Operating in a two-man attack, Giovinco serves as a hybrid playing off Altidore, who equally creates space for the Italian with his physical presence upfront.

The 29-year-old phenomenon isn’t a traditional centre-forward, nor is he a creative no.10 that solely creates around the final third. In truth, Giovinco’s strongest trait since moving to TFC involves swift counter-attacks that witnesses the Italian drift into space in the left channel to receive passes and instantly break towards the box.

Then there’s set-piece proficiency: Giovinco’s threat around the box is unprecedented, and it was vividly displayed most recently against the Montreal Impact. A threat in both phases of attacking play, the Italian’s 39 goals and 31 assists in two MLS regular seasons – 61 games to be exact – further reiterates why Saturday night could be the defining moment to a truly remarkable career.

But for all of Giovinco’s brilliance, the Italian’s post-season production is concerning. Practically anonymous in last year’s exit to the Impact in a single-game knockout, Giovinco’s brilliance has been overshadowed by Altidore’s great run of form and standout collective performances. His hat-trick against a poorly organized New York City FC side was just a glimpse of Giovinco’s threat during his MLS tenure, but the Italian’s lacked consistency during the post-season.

“He’s quick, fast, skillful, scores goals, set pieces, leads by example, can run all day,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said in listing off Giovinco’s qualities.

“We’ll try and cut off his service and make it difficult for him to run at us — normal defending things,” said Schmetzer. “It’s going to take a complete team defending-type performance.”

Perhaps Montreal’s swarming-defensive approach was highly effective and could be replicated by Seattle this weekend, but for a player of Giovinco’s quality, you simply expect more in the biggest games. The Impact clogged space in central areas by sitting deep and narrow, and therefore every time Giovinco received the ball there were two Montreal players within close proximity.

Nevertheless, in a one-game knockout final, preparations are slightly tweaked as the away goal rule doesn’t apply. This presents Giovinco with another opportunity to dominate a significant playoff game at BMO Field, and there would be no better time than an MLS Cup Final to solidify the Italian’s greatness.

The city of Toronto is undergoing a major transition when it comes to successful sports teams, but the Reds are always overlooked in comparison to the Raptors or Blue Jays. Oddly enough, so is Giovinco, who could arguably be the greatest sports figure to ply his trade in the city.

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Mats Sundin, Roy Halliday, Jose Bautista and Vince Carter are the most recent iconic figures to represent Toronto teams, but unlike Giovinco, they weren’t capable of guiding their respected club to a cup final. Giovinco, on the other hand, receives the ideal chance to be recognized in the same breath as Joe Carter to bring the city back to prominence in the sporting world.

Earlier this season, Giovinco mentioned the pleasure of being able to walk the streets of Toronto and live a normal life. Not many Torontonians are familiar with the diminutive superstar, though his arrival to the league has gradually improved the clubs following throughout the province.

Any significant influence in a positive result over the Sounders would elevate the Italian amongst one of the greatest sports figures this city has ever seen. The unpredictable dribbles, swift body feints, proficient set-piece efficiency, and sheer determination to find the back of the net won’t go under the radar against a Sounders defence that will be tasked with halting history.

It’s been nearly a decade of heartache for TFC fans dreaming of one day fighting for MLS top honours, and their designed scheme to build a dynasty is 90 minutes – potentially an additional 30 if extra-time is required – from being successful under Giovinco’s guidance.

Toronto awaits a new sporting hero, and one more breathtaking moment of brilliance separates Giovinco from joining the city’s higher echelon. It simply doesn’t get bigger than this.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Toronto FC – Seattle

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Toronto FC reaching its first MLS Cup final is a huge landmark and this would be the ideal manner to claim the club’s first piece of silverware. In terms of overall depth and home advantage, TFC are genuine favourites, but this is a battle between an in-form attack, and the best defensive unit in the playoffs.

TFC’s defensive issues were exploited on the counter-attack against the Montreal Impact, and coincidentally Seattle offers a similar threat with slight variations. The Reds are expected to dominate possession in front of their home crowd and onus will be on Seattle to remain compact and resolute.

The Sounders proved they’re capable of the aforementioned traits in their second leg victory at Colorado by defending narrow around the penalty area – the approach Montreal adopted against Greg Vanney’s men. TFC, however, rely on width from wing-backs Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour, whom will push forward to help create space around the box.

However, the Seattle midfield consists of the dynamism Mauro Biello’s men lacked in central areas, whilst still maintaining a solid base ahead of the back four. Therefore, Osvaldo Alonso’s fitness is a key talking point ahead of kick off.

The Sounders will play in a hybrid of a 4-2-3-1 /4-3-3, deploying a midfielder slightly ahead of the double-pivot, but Alonso’s presence enables Cristian Roldan and Erik Friberg the freedom to drive forward and join the attack. Alonso’s passing range is also an outlet utilized to build attacks from deep areas and Vanney will need to instruct Altidore or a member of his midfield trio to limit the Cuban’s threat.

Although Jonathan Osorio’s guile is an asset to the TFC midfield, Vanney will likely name an unchanged midfield trio. Will Johnson’s experience and grit in midfield ensures Michael Bradley isn’t overrun, whereas Armando Cooper’s ball-winning skills and tireless work-rate has helped the Reds win midfield battles throughout the second half of the season.

Another interesting aspect of the match takes place in wide areas. Seattle’s full-backs, specifically, Joevin Jones – Tyrone Mears gets forward but his influence in the final third is scarce –  who’s recorded three assists in this year’s post-season offers an additional source of creativity. But Sounders coach, Brian Schmetzer may encourage his full-backs to remain deep like they did in Colorado to prevent Giovinco and Altidore from drifting into the channels in transition.

Still, TFC’s defence remains their weak point, and Seattle’s attack contains various threats. Jordan Morris’ pace and willingness to break beyond the defence could trouble Beitashour and Eriq Zavaleta. Nelson Valdez is a penalty box poacher, but his ability to link play with the midfield and runners beyond the opposition’s defence means the Reds can’t afford the Paraguayan time to receive the ball.

Ultimately, Lodeiro is the key man behind Seattle’s success during the second half of the season. Capable of playing behind Valdez or off the right flank – Schmetzer should and probably will opt for the latter – Nicolas Lodeiro drifts across the pitch finding space to receive the ball and push his teammates forward.

Besides direct pacy dribbling, in many ways Lodeiro is similar to Ignacio Piatti, and equally completes his defensive work diligently. If Lodeiro drifts laterally and is unable to find pace between the lines, the Sounders creator is willing to move into midfield to build passing moves. This is one of the few reasons why Vanney will persist with Johnson in midfield: solely with the aim to help Bradley contain Lodeiro’s touches on the ball within the TFC half.

Nevertheless, despite Seattle’s competent attack and well-rounded, dynamic midfield, the key to the away side’s success hinges on their ability to contain Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. Altidore’s varied movement – coming short and drifting beyond the defence – has proved a nuisance to opposing defenders, but more importantly the American’s physical advantage against the Sounders back-line could be decisive.

Elsewhere, Giovinco is due for a big game, but attempting to dominate in a congested area isn’t the solution here. Apart from their renowned transitional attacks, Giovinco may be instructed to drift towards the left to create overloads and ensure Mears doesn’t push forward to provide width when Lodeiro drifts centrally in search of possession.

Here, the key for TFC is patience and quickly switching the play out into wide areas to stretch the Sounders back-line. But unlike their tie with Montreal, a level of caution must be instilled to cope with Morris’ pace and Lodeiro’s ability to pick out the correct pass from practically any area on the pitch.

Several match-winners off the bench, and countless goal-scoring threats in the final third suggests the Reds should triumph on home soil, but Vanney’s tactical dexterity has equally been pivotal, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the TFC manager was the pivotal factor once again. The Sounders possess the personnel capable of playing on the counter, and given TFC’s issues against Montreal, can the Reds rectify the defensive errors made in the conference final?

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2016 in Published Work

 

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TFC’s set-piece execution overwhelms Biello’s Montreal Impact

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Toronto FC leaned towards training ground execution to avenge last year’s MLS playoff exit to rivals Montreal Impact with an emphatic 5-2 victory at BMO Field. If Gregg Vanney didn’t receive plaudits for TFC improvement this season, then this two-legged fixture ensures that he should have very few critics going forward.

Falling to a three goal deficit with nearly half and hour remaining at Olympic Stadium should have placed Mauro Biello’s Impact within touching distance of an MLS Cup appearance, but Vanney’s tactical shifts – moving from a 3-5-2 to a 3-4-2-1, and then finally to a 3-4-1-2 – resulted in two away goals from Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. Though Vanney’s alterations ignited a response, identifying a ploy to avoid a similar first half outcome at BMO Field presented a test of his tactical acumen.

Opposed to straying away from the 3-5-2, Vanney’s sole change involved Will Johnson moving into midfield ahead of Jonathan Osorio. Biello, on the other hand, named the same starting XI for the fifth consecutive match, which heavily relies on the counter-attacking threat of the wide players, and the midfield trio’s ability to protect the centre of the pitch.

One of the issues TFC encountered from open play last week was their intent to simply dump balls into Altidore. Although the American international can operate as genuine target-man upfront, Altidore can simply be classified as an all-rounder at this level if you exclude his play-making skills.

Where Sebastian Giovinco once again dominated headlines throughout the regular season, Altidore was arguably the most impactful TFC player during the latter stages of the season and this current playoff run. With so much attention emphasized on negating Giovinco’s threat upfront, Altidore received additional space around the final third to influence the match.

Altidore quickly imposed his authority on the match within the opening six minutes, as Clint Irwin’s basic punt saw TFC striker shrug off Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera only to see Marco Donadel’s last-ditch recovering tackle prevent Giovinco from a potential opener. Ciman was subsequently booked for hauling down Altidore, and therefore it was unsurprising to see the American’s surging run into the box earn the corner that led to Armando Cooper’s equalizer.

The other aspect of Altidore’s impressive performance was the American’s work-rate out of possession. There were moments when the American tracked runs near the TFC box to help the hosts regain possession and charge forward. It was refreshing to see Altidore find ways to contribute on both ends given that the two sides were so familiar with the opposition that they often negated threats from open play.

Johnson was selected to offer improved protection of the back four to cope with Montreal’s threat on the counter. Meanwhile, Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow were cautious with their positioning, which also limited the away side’s threat down the flanks. However, despite Vanney’s minor adjustments, Matteo Mancosu still held off defenders and drove towards goal to create Dominic Oduro’s opener, subsequent to Patrice Bernier dispossessing Bradley at the halfway line.

Although Montreal increased their lead via another counter-attack, TFC still failed to bypass the away side’s narrow positioning ahead of the box. Frankly, TFC’s productivity from open play was tedious, as they were unable to provide a legitimate solution to the Impact’s shape. Nonetheless, Vanney’s alternative rested in training ground set-piece work: a day prior, the Reds reportedly spent additional time fine-tuning set-piece procedures.

The Impact back-line were shaky from the opening whistle, and here, they simply couldn’t cope with TFC’s aerial threats. TFC regained the lead in an eight-minute spell that witnessed Nick Hagglund and Jozy Altidore rise above their marker to connect with Giovinco’s corners – the former’s header was cleared off the line only for the rebound to be converted by Cooper.

Oddly enough, when TFC opted to retreat in their half, Biello’s wide-men easily equalized. Following an uneventful opening half, Oduro and Piatti adopted narrow shapes, and were within close proximity of the midfielders to receive service and run at the TFC defence. Piatti and substitute Venegas combined for the equalizer, thus forcing Vanney to react.

Vanney summoned Johnson for Tosaint Ricketts and moved to a 3-4-3 with Giovinco moving to the left flank – the front three were interchanging throughout; Giovinco moved laterally across the final third with Altidore and Ricketts predominantly in the box – and risked being exploited on the counter against the Impact’s deep defensive line.

Oduro and Piatti may have spurned quality chances in transition, but the Impact remained susceptible to crosses in the box. Hagglund put TFC ahead from another corner kick, whereas a piece of individual brilliance rom Altidore to evade two Impact players nearly won the game. As the Impact tired, it was only logical that TFC kept flooding the box, and it was fitting that substitute Benoit Cheyrou – introduced for the injured Giovinco – and Ricketts converted deliveries from six-yards out.

Perhaps Vanney’s preference to persist with TFC’s base shape never resulted in success, but mid game fine-tuning proved decisive, nonetheless. Giovinco’s minimal influence over both legs illustrates the overall depth of the side, but equally highlighted Altidore’s significance to the club.

Defensive solidity is commonly associated with a title-winner, and though TFC were poor in that respect, Vanney’s attention-to-detail and tactical prowess witnessed the Reds manager utilize width and set-piece efficiency to overcome set-backs. On recent evidence, even if the opposition identifies a solution to limit Giovinco’s threat, TFC possess the resilience, and ample goal-scoring options to win games.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2016 in Published Work

 

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

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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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