After making the playoffs for the first time in their history, Toronto FC are looking to build on that success in 2016. This year’s campaign started with an unimaginable 2-0 victory over the New York Red Bulls, the same Red Bulls that just won the Supporters Shield and have never lost to TFC at Red Bull Arena. The season could not have (kick)started any better.
— Toronto FC (@torontofc) March 6, 2016
But as exciting as it was, fans must understand that there are still a number of questions to be answered before any parades are planned. Can they survive the early schedule, is there enough depth to endure injuries and national team duties and finally, can the back line just bend and not break as they did all of last year which let wins become ties and ties become losses.
Getting Out of The Gate
For the second straight year, TFC have started the season with a long road stretch as BMO field is undergoing renovations. Their first home game of the season is not until May 7th and if things go poorly with their eight game road trip, they may have a huge psychological mountain to overcome. The Reds did manage three wins in that seven game stretch last year, but these eight games are against much tougher competition as nearly all were playoff teams.
Getting three points on the road already is promising but even this victory comes with caution as the Reds also beat the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first game last year, only to lose the next four. To avoid the same fate, TFC must continue to execute.
“It went to plan,” said goalie Clint Irwin after his first game for TFC, “We wanted to frustrate them and take our chances when we get them”
As long as it gets results, the Reds supporters will get used to the fact that their away tactics isn’t pretty football. For most of the game, MLS Most Valuable Player Sebastian Giovinco seemed to be an island unto himself as the rest of his team concentrated on defence. He would either be offside as TFC tried to crack the defence with quick, deep balls or he would go it alone against three defenders. It wasn’t until the 81st minute when Giovinco laid down a perfect pass that forced rookie Tsubasa Endoh to be brought down in the box for the crucial penalty kick.
Deep Bench to Survive Long Season
The argument can be made that scheduling isn’t an issue as everything balances out in the end. But with both the Copa América Centenario and Euro 2016 to take place when these home games take place, TFC’s best players such as Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and newcomer Canadian Will Johnson will most likely miss time with the club.
It is important therefore that when these key players are away, others need to step up and fill the gap. Altidore missed the opening match with an ongoing hamstring injury and Tsubasa Endoh, the 9th overall pick in the 2016 SuperDraft filled in admirably, even earning himself Man of the Match.
— Toronto FC II (@TorontoFCII) March 7, 2016
At some point Mo Babouli, Chris Mannella and Jordan Hamilton all recent TFC Academy graduates, will also need to step up to keep this team successful. But it isn’t only the rookies that will account for the depth, it is some of the new players that were brought in during the offseason as well.
Clint Irwin earned his first clean sheet for Toronto FC in his first game. The importance of this cannot be understated as TFC managed to do it only five times all of last year. Defenders Drew Moor, Steven Beitashour and Canadian Midfielder Will Johnson all have plenty of MLS experience and it is hoped their familiarity with the league will help solidify a defence that has been atrocious even at the best of times.
A Fragile Back Line
If that old sports adage, ‘Defence wins Championships’ is true, then no wonder TFC haven’t even come close to one in its history. The unsettling fact of them giving up 1.58 goals per game on average is that year after year, it has never improved. Never.
General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko brought in Moor, Beitashour and Irwin to help address their defensive woes and in particular two areas.
— Toronto FC (@torontofc) March 7, 2016
The first is defending set plays. Too many times, especially late in games, opponent free kicks and corner kicks have been converted into goals. Better communication and physical play is needed to prevent players from getting unimpeded looks at the net. New York still managed to get open a few times against the Reds from corner kicks, but thankfully those sailed over the net.
The second area of improvement is being able to relieve pressure by controlling the ball when they are under attack. It is very similar to a hockey team not being able to clear the puck past the blue line. This sustained pressure forces the defence to scramble to keep up, their formation is broken, and goals are scored. This also happened on Sunday but for now the backline was able to hold on.
Bringing Bradley and other midfielders further back as extra defenders can help at times, but it takes them away from their natural position so they are not there to receive and control the ball once it is cleared.
This season will be a roller coaster for TFC, but if game one was any indication, fans will witness more ups than downs. Should they survive the start of the schedule, endure the absences of star players and most importantly, grow together defensively, then they will not only make it back to the playoffs, they’ll make a lot of noise once they are there.
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