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.