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.