Photo: Daniel Studio
Who: Philadelphia Union (6th place, 1 point, 0-0-1) vs. Toronto FC (7th place, 1 point, 0-0-1)
What: 2017 MLS regular season
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Saturday, March 11 at 4:30pm EST
Watch: TSN4, TSN5, MLS LIVE, CSN-PHI
Whistle: Mark Geiger; Logan Brown, Oscar Mitchell-Carvalho; Juan Carlos Rivero
Back in October, Toronto FC did not play a particularly great game but still rolled out 3-1 winners in their first round playoff matchup with Philadelphia Union.
Fast forward to 2017 and TFC is rolling out the exact same lineup that beat the Union and came within a few touches of MLS Cup. That kind of continuity breeds extended success, and Toronto will almost certainly be fighting for the Supporters’ Shield trophy if they stay healthy.
TFC in 2017
That health is the team’s biggest question mark. Behind Michael Bradley, they have aged/aging Benoit Cheyrou. Behind their wingback spots, they have Ashtone Morgan and some mids that can play out of position. Behind their three starting center backs they have high ceiling option Chris Mavinga and SuperDraft pick Brandon Aubrey. It doesn’t matter who they have behind Giovinco and Jozy Altidore because there is a guaranteed drop off in talent after those two.
Depth issues, though, won’t be a factor on Saturday when TFC drops anchor in Chester. Head coach Greg Vanney has access to almost his entire arsenal, with the biggest issue new creative midfielder Victor Vazquez’s fitness after a short preseason. Vazquez is likely to come off the bench again after collecting 30 minutes of action last weekend, and the other big lineup question will be whether Mavinga slides into the first eleven after missing last week’s match for the birth of a child.
Regardless of who fills the roles, TFC seems committed to a 3-5-2 shape this season. After vacillating between three and four back sets in 2016, Vanney’s men have stuck with three in the back throughout preseason and their opening match draw with Real Salt Lake. Toronto’s shape is designed to offer width through wingbacks and control of the center with three active midfielders who collapse centrally when the ball enters the final third. Michael Bradley sits at the base of the midfield and looks to distribute through the lines and close down access to the box through the middle. And it should be said: He’s very, very good at both.
TFC vs Vancouver
Compared to Vancouver Whitecaps, the Union face a far different test this weekend. The ‘Caps were fairly content to sit back and let Philly come at them; Toronto will not be so passive. By applying pressure high up the pitch through Altidore and Giovinco, TFC looks to force the ball wide early, which allows their wingbacks to step high and enter good counterattacking transitions. They push the ball back inside and look to prevent early passes into the corners, this forces the team with the ball to try to play short passes in the center, where TFC can press forward with their advanced midfielders and sneak up from behind with their intelligent strikers. Below you can see TFC beat the midfield press by playing negative balls to players who have just rolled out of high pressure. The final ball is lacking, but the aim when advancing through the center is to find the wingback’s overlap as the defense collapses to the middle.
It’s an aggressive system that relies on the wingbacks to trigger pressure, and when it works it births a devastatingly fast and destructive counterattack led by the best all-around striker in MLS and the best American striker alive. So yeah. Dangerous. Leaving out MLS Cup, TFC went seven matches scoring at least two goals to finish last season.
The attack is also very fluid. You can see below that TFC is willing to let both strikers drop into midfield — with a center middie, in this case Osorio, pushing high — in order to facilitate movement through the congested center.
But all that firepower showed up in Rio Tinto Stadium last weekend and dropped a big zero. What happened?
First of all, Giovinco had a penalty saved by a penalty shot superhero.
Second, RSL played near-perfect defense in midfield and survived some rough early moments from Chris Shuler to let the big defender grunt his way into a physical battle with Altidore that few others could win. As fun as it would be to see Altidore and Oguchi Onyewu go at each other for ninety minutes, that is not a strategy the Union should rely on if they want to actually win the match.
But Philly can try to emulate some of the actions of RSL’s gritty midfield performance.
With Kyle Beckerman sitting behind Sunny and new signing Albert Rusnak, RSL worked tirelessly toward three inter-related goals: First, don’t let anyone turn with the ball in midfield. Second, put pressure on Michael Bradley quickly. And third, when the ball goes wide, make sure it stays there; when the ball goes inside, make sure it stays there. By achieving all three of these aims, Jeff Cassar’s men largely smothered TFC’s counterattack and survived the few breakouts that are inevitable against such a talented opponent.
As Union fans are surely aware at this point, allowing Toronto to turn and run at your defense is about as dangerous as giving Chip Kelly control of your organization. TFC loves to draw a defense out then play the ball inside and quickly back out to a wingback or just hit a midfielder’s feet through Bradley and let them turn up field. Once the wingbacks or advanced midfielders are facing forward, TFC becomes extremely difficult to handle.
The advanced midfielders interact with the strikers to pull players out of the space in front of the opposing defense, then Altidore, Giovinco, or a midfielder slips into that space to receive the ball and Toronto is in position to generate good chances.
To counter TFC’s attack, Sunny, Beckerman, and winger Jordan Allen would sprint forward to close down midfielders who received the ball in the middle third of the pitch. Normally, Toronto can force a defense to use the attacking midfielder to close down TFC’s advanced mids, which frees up Bradley to spread the field to the opposite wingback or a checking striker. RSL smartly held Rusnak on Bradley to ensure the deep-lying creator had to play short, slowing down TFC’s transitions across the pitch. Below, pay particular attention to the speedy pressure Sunny and Beckerman put on TFC’s free men in midfield.
Rusnak’s hard running at Bradley often forced TFC to pull their advanced midfielders deeper or wider. When deep, these players were forced to play the ball backward into defense. When wide, they limited the wingbacks’ space, effectively preventing the wide players from connecting back to the center.
Below, you can see that RSL was willing to extend their midfield pressure if it meant preventing Bradley time on the ball. Rusnak’s press forces TFC to use Cooper in the defensive half, and Sunny dispossesses him to start a counterattack.
Overall, this pressure meant that when the ball went up the middle, TFC had difficulty involving the wide players, and thus had no way to open space for the strikers in the middle. And when the ball went wide early, Rusnak and striker Yura Movsisyan sat in the passing lane to Bradley, keeping play from rotating back into the center.
It all sounds very simple on paper, but it very much wasn’t. Even with TFC lacking great movement from Jonathan Osorio and Armando Cooper in the middle, RSL still had to hand off runners, cover each other when someone sprinted forward to close down the ball, and, most difficult, make sure Bradley couldn’t pop open with space to get his head up when he was off the ball.
Bradley only completed three passes that could be considered lengthy, line-breaking balls all match against RSL. That’s fewer than he had in the first half against the Union in the playoffs.
Another important tactic RSL used to slow the TFC offense was physicality. The Utah club committed 17 fouls, well above their 2016 average. They committed all but two of those fouls in the middle third of the pitch (i.e., far from goal), and the other two were the penalty Rimando gave up and a true softie on Joao Plata during a scramble outside Toronto’s box.
Jim Curtin wanted the Union to become a more physical side last season. He did not get his wish. After finishing with the lowest fouls/game average in MLS in 2015, Philly only bounced from the cellar because other teams committed fewer fouls in 2016. The Union? They went all the way from 11.0 to 11.2 fouls per match.
Philly committed 12 fouls last weekend, but only 8 before the 90th minute. That tells us little since both sides were generally standoffish in the middle third, preferring to wait for the other team to come to them. The Union cannot afford to be so passive against TFC.
Certainly the Union could look to counterattack out of a deep block, but there is little to suggest they will be able to execute it effectively against a team so skilled at putting players in behind a defense. Every time Toronto gets wingbacks behind fullbacks is a time that Onyewu has to play defense while retreating, and for all his strength, the big man has hardly looked agile in his past two appearances against DC United and Vancouver.
In other words, the Union will have to come out and play with a smart aggression to prevent TFC from running at them. This will — or should — mean committing smart fouls far from goal that help the defense organize and keep Toronto from building those flowing inside-out and outside-in moves that so easily pulled the Union apart in the past. Those throughballs that destroyed Ken Tribbett last season? They’re only possible if a player has time to look up before playing the ball; RSL consistently had someone running at the ball receiver in the middle third (and they were extremely smart about when they chased the ball into TFC’s back three as well. There were few lone wolf presses; each sprint was well-supported).
For all their good defensive pressure, RSL created very little in attack. Joao Plata’s wonderful late opportunity came from Kyle Beckerman’s pass of the week, so it clearly took something a little special to get in on the stout TFC defense.
There are three things that either were effective for RSL or would have been had they done them. First, breaking into wide areas off of turnovers. The Union tried to isolate Jay Simpson on a center back when playing out of the back, but Simpson rarely got the better of Christian Dean. Against TFC, Philly needs to look for that same ball quickly when they force a turnover in the middle third. The big risk Toronto makes with a three-back shape is pushing the wingbacks so high offensively, meaning that in transition their center backs can be pulled wide when they really, really don’t want to be. Movsisyan, Rusnak, and Plata were able to establish deep possessions for the home side when they quickly read play off of turnovers and dragged a central defender to the corners to collect long balls. Below, you can see Rusnak immediately run at Nick Hagglund following a turnover, exploiting wide space before Justin Morrow can recover.
Second, what you do with the ball in those wide areas matters a lot. Toronto is masterful at choking out space in the final third, with a wingback, a midfielder, Bradley, and a center back all closing in when the ball is deep in their half but outside the box. At times, TFC would commit eight bodies to the play when the ball was near the box and wide. As much as it seems like there should be a simple solution to this (um, just move the ball somewhere else, yeah?), it’s just not that easy. TFC is organized in their pressure, and Bradley is excellent at closing off key passing lanes into dangerous spots. In the clip below, even Jozy Altidore is aware of the goal: Keep the ball in the congested area so RSL can’t find any space.
One solution is to play the ball back and try to quickly cycle it across the pitch. This can work, but it also risks putting the ball at the feet of defenders with TFC breaking forward and two good defensive strikers on the prowl. Teams often find that once they play the ball back, Toronto breaks out so quickly that any chance to create an advantage on the far side is lost.
In the clip below, Tony Beltran steps forward to pressure the simple first outlet pass, but he leaves huge space down the wing. If Drew Moor’s pass is better, Altidore is off and running into space. How will Onyewu handle a similar situation should it arise on Saturday?
A more effective — though also risky — option is to send a runner in front of Bradley, sucking him deeper into the back line. This can open a lane into a center midfielder who can quickly move the ball across the pitch to create a numerical advantage on the far side. Once the ball is in the middle, the attacking side has two options: The far-side fullback can move forward looking for a pass into space. This will often create a one-on-one with the far wingback, offering a chance to put a ball into the center. Second, the fullback can hang deep, collect a pass from the middle, and look to play the ball into feet around the box. This offers the dual benefits of creating difficult defensive situations that can draw fouls and allowing the fullback to make a run forward as the defense collapses toward the first pass. RSL used this latter tactic against Toronto, with Tony Beltran and Chris Wingert wary of being caught high if the central midfielder’s ball out to them was less than perfect.
Below, you can see RSL attempt the latter strategy. Beltran stays deep, and when pressure comes to him he plays the ball forward and runs off it, looking to move into the space his pressuring defender left behind.
What is clear is that forcing the ball forward once TFC collapses to one side is extremely difficult, and rotating it to the center then trying to jam it through is equally so. RSL settled for a lot of shots just outside the box, and Philly will have to do the same if they haven’t worked out effective passing patterns to move the ball out of congested areas.
One new wrinkle for Toronto is Victor Vazquez’s potential in midfield. The Barcelona academy product was brought in to provide more creativity, and he certainly has the vision and skill to produce magic, as you can see below.
However, Vazquez is still rounding into shape and hasn’t picked up the nuances of TFC’s defensive system. Below, you can see that Toronto is very willing to commit all three midfielders to the ball-side of the pitch if it means limiting space. Osorio comes over to tackle Plata at the edge of the box, meaning all three center mids are in that same small area to the left of the box.
When Vazquez enters for Osorio, he’s slower to read the play defensively (you can see him arrive late once Beckerman has the ball), and that gives RSL a chance to move the ball back to the center, where Beckerman can cheekily offer Plata a great scoring chance.
There are few. Assuming Ilsinho remains injured for another weekend, Fabian Herbers, Alejandro Bedoya, and Chris Pontius will form the attacking band behind Jay Simpson. Derrick Jones and Haris Medunjanin will provide support in front of the back four. This is a hard-working team, and one that proved surprisingly adept at defensive rotations once Bedoya began playing deeper in the second half last weekend.
As Kevin Kinkead pointed out, Medunjanin was a bit suspect picking up runs last weekend, but the big Bosnian was actually quite excellent at putting himself in defensive positions that forced play out of dangerous areas and meant he didn’t need to put in a tackle. Vancouver’s young roller coaster of an attack will be a far different animal from the one TFC brings to Chester this weekend, though, and it will be interesting to see how Medunjanin handles both the high pressure and the attacking movement of the Eastern Conference champs.
Prediction: TFC 2-1 Union
The big question is where does that Union goal come from. I don’t have an answer, I’m just optimistic.
Toronto was a bit sloppy last weekend but should be more in sync and will almost certainly generate a few high quality scoring chances against the Union. Whether they can finish those chances will decide if Philly can stay in the match or not.
One area to watch closely is set pieces, where both teams scored on each other with frequency last season. The Union’s lone playoff goal came from a set piece, but TFC has traditionally given Philly fits by sending its big bodies into the box. Toronto used a front post-heavy zone on corner kicks against RSL, and the home side had some success playing deep corners and knocking them down into the chaotic box. Pontius, Richie Marquez, Onyewu, and Jones give the Union a lot of height and aerial talent to aim at, so it will be imperative that they both hit deep corners and put bodies in the center to jam them home.
Toronto FC was the team that most effectively and completely exposed the Union last year, both during the regular season and the playoffs. Saturday’s matchup, then, is both a chance to earn difficult points at home and an opportunity for Jim Curtin’s team to show it has grown in discipline and ability to execute from a year ago. A close loss this early in the season is not devastating, even at home. But a big loss will be.
Toronto is the class of the east. If the Union want to say they are on a trajectory toward TFC’s lofty heights, looking competitive on Saturday is a must.