Soorie, What Are They All Aboot, eh? Toronto FC
“It is very important for us that we won. This is the first consecutive win we have had since I have been here”. Although Paunovic spoke those words with a sigh of relief, by the end of his post-match press conference after Chicago’s 3-0 thrashing of New England, he was full of hope and confidence. The Fire have gone on an impressive run lately, earning eleven points from their first six matches, giving them their best start since 2008’s thirteen-point haul in that same time span. The squad is clicking, they have depth in a way that hasn’t been present in recent memory, and perhaps most importantly, the team is starting to play not only a distinct style, but doing so with joy. Even the most ardent cynics found themselves applauding Nikolic’s brace and Schweinsteiger’s second MLS goal against the Revolution. However, their sternest test of the season arrives this Friday as they face TFC north of the border (6:30 CT on COZI TV).
Toronto has struggled of late but they are by no means a mediocre side. Their position in the table does not reflect their ability or their ambition and they will be looking to return to winning ways on Friday. BMO Field was somewhat of a fortress last season–TFC lost there just three times (Vancouver, Montreal, DC) last season–and Chicago has struggled against TFC of late, losing all four of the previous iterations of this fixture. Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Sebastian Giovinco have all been vocal about the disappointing start to the season but were also adamant that things can change quickly in the East. Will Chicago continue to shame their doubters, or will TFC re-establish themselves as the dominant force they are expected to be? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
TFC Form Guide: L-D-D-W-D
Previous Match: A 2-1 road loss to Columbus.
Formation: 3-5-2; Bono; Zavaleta, Moor, Mavinga; Beitashour, Vazquez, Bradley, Cooper, Morrow; Altidore, Giovinco
Strengths: Toronto is entering this match with a team that is largely unchanged from the one that made a run to the MLS Cup Final last season. If anything, they’ve improved with the additions of Chris Mavinga and Victor Vazquez and they’ll want to start living up to expectations (for more on these additions visit the preseason preview of Toronto). TFC have an important three match home stint coming up and they’ll need all three points against Chicago to get off on the right foot. Let’s see where they could succeed on Friday.
Continued Impenetrability: Despite the slow start, TFC is continuing their fine form at the back. Only New York and Orlando have allowed fewer goals than Toronto (with Orlando having played fewer matches) and Vanney’s men have kept a clean sheet in half of their appearances this season. Last season’s back line was only outdone by Colorado in terms of that same stat and they’ll take pride in being sole holders of that honor come October. Organization, discipline, and the possibility of the counter are weapons in their arsenal. Looking at the defensive contributions map of the center back trio over the last three matches reflects a pointillism painting as much as it does a soccer stat sheet. Chicago will need to be at their best to unlock this defense because this TFC team defends well as a whole. Often portrayed as a “lazy player”, Jozy Altidore can be seen closing down defenders who are on the ball to initiate quick turnovers in TFC’s recent matches and Giovinco has done so as well. The defensive capabilities of Bradley speak for themselves and the energy, pace, and enthusiasm present in either Cooper or Osorio–whichever of the young duo Vanney opts to include–will provide an extra challenge for a Chicago side that wants to keep the ball as much as possible.
Winning Mentality: Greg Vanney recently commented that the teams strongest attribute is their assumption that they are going to win every match. This manifests itself in their aggressive approach on both sides of the ball and Vanney specifically highlighted TFC’s ability to create goal scoring opportunities this season. Their finishing has been lacking but with the quality of Altidore and Giovinco, that could change at a moment’s notice. Their lone loss of the season, against Columbus, could just be a small blemish as TFC learns to manage heightened expectations.
The New Maestro: We discussed the addition of Victor Vasquez earlier this year but his contributions are no longer in the realm of speculation. The Barcelona youth product has come to show that the skills imbedded in a player at a young age are not lost with age. Michael Bradley’s positioning just ahead of the back three allow Vasquez the mobility to act as a deep lying play maker. The aforementioned exuberance of Osorio/Cooper ensure that Vasquez has spry legs around him on either side of the ball, and the wingbacks offer him targets out wide while further assuring him of defensive solidity should his orchestration fail. He’s playing with confidence and it’s revealed in some of his recent stats. He’s completed 77% of his 130 passes over the course of the last three matches (including an assist on all three of TFC’s goals in that span) and has completed 95% of his defensive intervention in that span. It is quickly becoming apparent why Vanney pursued him for two years. Needless to say, Chicago has its first evenly matched midfield battle coming up.
Weaknesses: If there is one thing consistent about MLS from year to year, it is its inconsistency… TFC cannot continue to point back to last season’s MLS Cup Final appearance and expect to somehow generate points from it. An uncharacteristically slow start–even by this league’s standards–has seen Toronto notch just one win from six matches. That lone victory came against a Vancouver side that was attempting to navigate through a tough matchup against Tigres in the CONCACAF Champions league. Two draws at home and a lackluster draw against bottom dwelling Philly aren’t exactly impressive either. Vanney told reporters on Wednesday that he’ll only be worried if this form is the norm come June, but underneath that calm persona there has to be some doubt. Let’s take a look at where they could struggle.
Vado a Fare una “Stay-cation”: Although we assume it to be temporary, the $7.2 million compensation and the accompanying charming smiles of Giovinco are looking a little less cute this season. Entering his third campaign, the Italian has seemed to hit a dip in form. He’s scored just once and hasn’t provided any assists in the five matches he’s played. The chemistry that existed between the midfield trio and Giovinco needs to be rebuilt as he and Victor Vazquez grapple with who is the creative force of the team. Giovinco has been allowed to shift to his preferred role as a secondary striker who makes runs from a deeper position, as he did at Juventus, but this new sense of freedom isn’t paying off just yet.
In the two most recent matches, Giovinco struggled to make in impact in the final third against two sides that implement a high press. Against Columbus, Giovinco attempted just 22 open play passes, completing just over 50% of them. Additionally, he registered just one shot on target. Against Atlanta, Giovinco managed to score but his contribution was significantly stifled aside from that stat. Due to the constant hassle provided by Tata Martino’s tactics, Giovinco completed just 28% of his passes in the final third. It seems as if MLS sides have figured out a way to get under his skin and we expect McCarty, Juninho, and Schweinsteiger to continue that trend. The diminutive Italian will figure it out as the season progresses, but not soon enough.
Casual Approach: In his midweek breakdown, Greg Vanney discussed some of the recent poor performances plaguing Toronto. As mentioned above, he praised the strong starts that TFC seems to make but quickly followed it up by saying that they get tactically lax and seem to switch off mentally late in matches. Their intensity is present early, but they seem to pressure themselves into thinking that the match must be won in the first 20 minutes. If Chicago can weather the early storm, TFC’s tendencies could play into the hands of an attack heavy Fire side.
They’re Just a Few Timbits Short of a Bakers Dozen: It seems as if Chicago has recently hit a streak of luck in terms of facing weakened opposition. Last season saw them struggle with their own bouts of injury and often facing sides without the same dilemma. This year the tables have turned as TFC becomes the fourth consecutive opponent to be missing three or more starting caliber players in the contest. The backline has been hit particularly hard as Clint Irwin will be missing for a few weeks with a hamstring strain, Drew Moor has been sidelined with a minor heart arrhythmia, Chris Mavinga has a quad strain, Jason Hernandez is still relegated to jogging on his own as he regains fitness, and Ashtone Morgan just returned to full training on Tuesday.
Replacing two center backs is not ideal heading into a match where understanding at the back will be key. Look for Vanney to possibly switch up the formation and go with a straight four at the back with Beitashour, Zavaleta, Morgan, and Morrow. The wingbacks may have more defensive duties than they would like, prohibiting their forays forward. If we may be so bold as to play coach for a moment, TFC really struggled with set piece marking and counter attacks in both of their recent matches, perhaps Paunovic could give both Accam and Solignac a start on Friday? Stretching both wings could prove fruitful here. Oh, and Bono has just above a goal against average in the matches that he’s started.
Prediction: There is a bit of magic in the air. It is tough to win on the road in MLS, but this Chicago side and their momentum will get it done. Chicago 2-1 TFC. McCarty from distance for the first, Niko with the dagger in the closing minutes.