Even without Sebastian Giovinco’s brilliance, it always seemed likely that Toronto FC would be able to fend off Philadelphia Union. Those odds seemed even greater when it was announced that Tranquillo Barnetta’s knee injury was worse than feared, depriving Philly of their playmaker and dominant offensive force.
But the Union’s new million dollar player produced a goal worthy of his price tag, and the visitors held on to a point despite two close calls in the final moments of the match.
At this point, it doesn’t matter how the Union get into the playoffs, they just need to get there. And a point in Toronto is a very important step in the right direction.
Bedoya’s move forward
In retrospect it seems obvious: On the road against a top opponent you simply put your best overall player in a dangerous position and support him with some solid, stay-at-home midfielders. But the Union have insisted that they would play Alejandro Bedoya in the No. 8 role since they signed him, so it was a bit surprising to see Roland Alberg on the bench and Warren Creavalle drafted into Saturday’s lineup. It proved to be a shrewd move as Creavalle had one of his best matches, bumping hard against his limitations but covering ground, closing quickly, and generally making Toronto’s attacks stilted and disjointed.
Bedoya, meanwhile, led the most organized defensive pressure the Union have put together since trouncing New England. Asked about Bedoya after the match, Jim Curtin said, “The idea of moving him to the 10 was twofold: he is a defense-minded guy but he also in the transitions can be very dangerous when he runs with the ball. You saw him score a great goal tonight, but I thought his work defensively dealing with Michael [Bradley] was important.”
It was clear from the start that Toronto was hoping to use Bradley’s distribution to spread the pitch and avoid the Union’s pressure. Early on, though, the Union didn’t give Bradley enough time to find options up the field, and Toronto was left trying to access the center from deeper spots.
Above you can see Sapong close on Bradley after Herbers’ pass to him misses. The Union counterpress is quick and organized, and Toronto is left playing the ball into the center before they can move it far enough up field to find Jozy Altidore.
And when Toronto did bypass pressure (below), the Union’s holding midfielders were disciplined in denying the middle of the pitch. Warren Creavalle carefully cuts off the passing lane to the center, which keeps Toronto out of the dangerous areas where Altidore can receive balls and body up defenders.
This was as close to the defense Philly executed against Columbus at the start of the season as the team has come in quite some time. A higher back line meant less space for Altidore to control in the middle, and that meant Toronto was left with their wider central midfielders actually playing wide roles. And this is not ideal for Greg Vanney.
Going forward, Bedoya tried to create combinations on the flanks rather than look to pop up between the lines like the man he replaced. Above, you can see him carry the ball forward, drawing a defender and sliding the ball wide. Below, he slips wide and uses his prodigious skillset to slide a fine pass forward. Bedoya largely abdicated the center and made TFC’s midfield chase him wide, and when they didn’t he took advantage of numerical superiorities. (Carroll’s run here is also excellent.)
And, of course, there was this
There is so much to love about the finish that it’s easy to overlook how well Bedoya sets it up. His initial run doesn’t make him available to Pontius, but it pushes the defensive line back so the Union wingers have space to operate. Bedoya then takes a step back toward Herbers as the rookie plays his pass, and this step keeps him onside.
Like Bradley, Bedoya is more substance than flash, so it’s surprising when he pulls such a sumptuous bit of skill out of his bag. But this sensational goal is also a reminder that, again like Bradley, Bedoya may take a while to settle in and find his role in Major League Soccer. And the Union will need to find the best role for him as well.
It wasn’t all rosy, though. Even as they controlled the match, the Union showed glimpses of frailty. In particular, when TFC could put Altidore near Carroll, Creavalle needed to follow his man on long runs into the Union half. Twice in the first 45, Benoît Cheyrou snuck behind Creavalle after Carroll drifted away with Altidore.
Though it’s easy to excoriate Creavalle, this is also an intentional design by TFC. They have Will Johnson deep on the line and Justin Morrow further forward. The center has been emptied, so Altidore can check in to the ball or occupy Carroll because the defense isn’t going to follow him so far into midfield. Creavalle has to stick with Cheyrou, but with the midfield empty, he thinks he’ll have support from Carroll. Yes, that’s a lot of C-names, but it’s also an interesting variant on TFC’s offensive shape that aims to get their most dangerous player on the ball. Carroll generally dealt with it well, but at times he drifted inside and Creavalle was left to fend for himself.
Second half shift
The second half saw the danger signs of the first 45 come to fruition, though there was no single cause to the shift in control. As the Union’s holding midfield became more conservative, Toronto pushed their fullbacks further up the pitch and created more separation between Philly’s first line of pressure and the rest of the team. Additionally, Vanney inserted Marky Delgado and shifted Cheyrou to the left, where he did a far better job than Johnson moving the ball forward with his feet. Finally, Jordan Hamilton began playing off Fabinho and Richie Marquez rather than Keegan Rosenberry. Ironically — but likely according to plan — removing a body from the left allowed Toronto to dominate that wing. Rosenberry was more willing to step forward out of the defensive line and TFC could attack that space.
Summing up the changes
Above, you can see the incredible moment when Warren Creavalle passed the ball to himself then delivered a sharp left-footed cross into the box, leading to Fabian Herbers’ big chance to double the score. This occurred at the end of the first half when the Union were piling pressure on Toronto during build-up play.
Below, you can see a play early in the second half when Creavalle has a chance to stride forward but chooses to stay deep, which keeps him close to a defender and leads to a turnover. This play symbolizes the second half shift toward a more risk-averse defense.
Notably, as the Union sat back, Toronto responded with more patient build-ups. Below, you can see TFC walk the ball forward with their defense, drawing Union pressure then playing the ball behind that pressure to find areas of superiority.
Toronto’s adjustments work, the Union’s aren’t fully embraced
As mentioned in the preview, Toronto’s biggest leap forward this season has their tactical flexibility; major midgame shifts in approach are consistently executed with precision.
After the match, Curtin talked about wanting to control the middle defensively and protect the back line against a team that plays with two strikers. In the first half, this plan worked very well, and Toronto’s adjustments reflect that.
However, it is also true that the Union’s halftime adjustments did not make clear whether they were aiming to sit deep or continue to counterpress. One issue Philly has had this season when they try to counterpress is that the tactic must, by necessity, be executed following a turnover (hence the idea of pressing a counterattack). When the Union give up tons of possession, they have fewer chances to exert good pressure and, instead, press in pockets that the opposition can easily pass through.
Above, you can see a tiring Herbers back off the man with the ball after a turnover. However, the rest of the Union side presses. It’s too late: Toronto passes through the pressure and finds Osorio streaking upfield. Note how similar the end of this play is to Toronto’s big chances last time these teams met. But also look at a) how close Marquez is to Altidore, so the big man can’t receive the ball. And b) how both central defenders are close enough that a central pass would need to be fired by Luke Skywalker to become a chance. Even though TFC breaks, they have to break into a wide area, and that is far, far better. Below, you can compare that play to one of Toronto’s big chances last game.
One final note before we look at TFC’s goal: This was a match that demonstrated perfectly the dangers of Philly’s — and particularly Fabinho’s — penchant for early crosses. Though there is a logic to support this notion, namely that you can catch the defense before they’re set, the downside can be substantial. In the clip below, Fabinho’s early cross comes before Philly’s holding midfielders can close in on the attackers. This means that any clearance collected by a TFC player can be turned upfield without pressure, leading to dangerous counterattacks.
This isn’t to say deep crosses shouldn’t be used, but they must be used situationally. And if the Union’s deep midfielders aren’t going to step forward, deep crosses are likely more problematic than they are helpful. Especially when you have a lead to protect and possession is paramount.
In the same vein as Giovinco’s goal in the last meeting, this play features numerous small mistakes that add up to a bad situation. First, you will see Ilsinho press a defender without any support. Additionally, the Brazilian closes directly on the defender, without an awareness of the available passing lanes around him. Brian Carroll was in close man-coverage on the only central passing option, so if Ilsinho takes a wider route to the ball, he forces TFC back to the right.
This misplaced pressure leads to a waterfall of smaller problems: Since Ilsinho is out of the play, Rosenberry steps high to Morrow. As he does, the rest of Philly’s defense… retreats. This leaves an enormous, expanding hole of space behind Rosenberry and Osorio is more than happy to footrace Brian Carroll to the corner.
Ideally, Philly’s defense would not retreat when Rosenberry steps, but instead rotate to his side. That would put Tribbett in a position to protect the space behind Rosenberry while Carroll drops central. The Union defense’s prevention-focused quick retreat means they have essentially created space for Osorio to operate.
The final issue is frustrating but ultimately forgivable. Once Osorio cuts around Carroll, Warren Creavalle begins to step in, even after Keegan Rosenberry has recovered to front the ball. Creavalle leaves Cheyrou alone, and Tribbett slides inside towards Cheyrou, taking him away from the outside channel where Morrow is about to arrive. In this bang-bang scenario, it’s difficult to blame Creavalle: This may be more of a communication issue where Rosenberry has to assert that he has the ball and tell Creavalle to keep his position.
Andre Blake – 6
Not much to do with Toronto struggling to create chances in the Union final third.
Keegan Rosenberry – 5
Another restrained match going forward for the rookie, who is struggling to find his space in the latter third of the season. He was beaten on the goal, but was just a small piece of the problem on that play.
Ken Tribbett – 7
All eyes on the rookie defender and he came through with a strong, steady performance. Four interceptions, four tackles, four recoveries and, just to mix it up, five clearances.
Richie Marquez – 6
An intriguingly mundane night for Marquez. Toronto put Altidore on his side, but the big striker never got involved enough to challenge the Union’s tough 24-year old. Kept it simple with the ball, which was the right thing to do.
Fabinho – 5
Fabi is a bit low because, despite a strong defensive effort, he didn’t take advantage of the copious space TFC offered up the left. Too many early crosses meant the Union were constantly moving forward and quickly giving the ball away.
Brian Carroll – 8
Here’s the thing about Carroll: He’s a counterweight. All match, he had to make sure Toronto couldn’t slip by Creavalle and drive down the center of the Union midfield. And Carroll did it perfectly. All the passes that Altidore received in the middle with ease last week against the vaunted NYRB midfield? Nowhere to be found because that’s where BC lives.
Warren Creavalle – 8
Both Cs had to be top notch for Philly to smother the Toronto offense. And they were. Creavalle’s high pressure and incredible workrate set the tone early and often.
Alejandro Bedoya – 8
Tired and slowed after a collision in midfield, but connected the dots brilliantly in the first half. And oh that goal. Oh, that goal!
Chris Pontius – 6
Fourth minute shot aside, Pontius was relatively quiet. But when he got the ball, he didn’t lose it. And he worked his socks off defensively.
Fabian Herbers – 8
Assists in three straight matches, which means he was the only Union player with a helper in September. Again put an opposition goalie under intense pressure with his aggressive running into the box.
CJ Sapong – 7
Both shots off target, but Sapong was far more involved in the offense than he has been in recent weeks. Calm on the ball, he created separation as much as he looked for contact. Sapong did well to make a deep run that created a huge chance for Ilsinho to find Pontius at the top of the box, but the Brazilian oddly chose to drive to the endline rather than shoot or pass, and the opportunity was lost.
Ilsinho – 3
Look, if he’s going to come in with a lead he better produce some offense, because he’s barely an upgrade over a tired Herbers defensively. Below, you can see a moment less than 15 minutes after Ilsinho entered the match where he doesn’t recover fast enough to close the lane to Cheyrou in the center. Instead, Bedoya beats Ilsinho back and steps to the Toronto midfielder.
Charlie Davies – 4
Good running but hardly involved.
Geiger counter – 3
Sure let a lot go for the first 70 minutes, then tightened up quite suddenly. The call at the end was the big one. Did he get it right?