Ciarán Breen reports on Toronto FC as they head back to BMO Field next week with some questions to answer.
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Toronto FC surpassed the early season eight-point target set by club President Bill Manning but after a gruelling and ultimately successful road trip they return home to great expectations.
The Reds (3-2-2) wrapped up the eight-game road stretch that started their season in Portland on Sunday, where they fell to a 2-1 defeat against the reigning MLS Cup holders, despite dominating large parts of the game and fashioning significantly more chances.
The front office and the team’s supporters will be happy with the 11-point haul so far but are unlikely to be as forgiving of missed opportunities during the upcoming four-game home stand.
Will Johnson summed up the mood of the camp ahead of the home opener with FC Dallas on Saturday, May 7 at the newly refurbished BMO Field in Toronto.
“We feel that we left some points out there today,” said the former Portland Timber. “But we can’t let that feeling linger because we’re going home to a beautiful new stadium that we need to put on a show on Saturday.”
In addition to learning that this TFC team has grit, the opening two months of the season have been a reminder that it remains tough to win on the road in Major League Soccer.
Greg Vanney spoke to the consistency and nerve required to get the job done.
“It’s a long season. It’s a league where anybody can beat anybody on any given day,” said the head coach after the game in Portland. “You’ve got to stay strong and stick with the things you’re trying to do. We’ve had a great run in these eight games.”
The highlight of the run was the convincing 2-0 victory over the Montreal Impact last week. The derby-day performance had people talking Toronto up as 2016 contenders but ambition and expectation will come home to roost in a matter of days.
Birthday boy Diego Valeri’s second half free kick golazo was the difference in an incredibly open encounter in Portland but Timbers stopper Jake Gleeson was the obvious man of the match with a trio of game-winning saves.
Whilst his team didn’t make their second half dominance count, it will have been a useful exercise to Greg Vanney to see how his team dealt with having more of the ball than in six of the previous seven games. The Reds had a season high 59.7% possession in April’s 1-1 draw with New England.
To dominate possession (57.6%) and manage 18 shots, double that of Portland, away from home, you have to be disappointed to come away with nothing.
Drew Moor, in his first season with Toronto agreed. “We deserved all three points but when you don’t finish your chances in this league you’re going to be punished for it.”
It is fair to say TFC have eased their way into this season, taking a more conservative and defensive approach. They averaged 43.3% possession in the first half of the road trip as they sat back and asked the opposition to play through their tight formation.
However, the team has had an average of 52.1% of the ball in the last four games as they have sought to play a little more expansive and attacking game. This can be largely credited to the return of Jozy Altidore and his ability to both hold up the ball and provide a more direct option for Giovinco. While the U.S. International has yet to get on the scoresheet, he has drawn fouls, provided assists and generally created more space for his teammates in the opponents half.
Praise must also be given to Greg Vanney, who has proved flexible and adapted his team’s setup based on the opponent. Toronto’s new found offensive confidence was on show in Montreal on matchday seven, when Vanney deployed Jonathan Osorio in a free role at the tip of a diamond 4-4-2 formation that outshone an inform Montreal side that included the returning Didier Drogba.
The Reds limited their Canadian rivals to just two shots on target at Stade Suputo and with just seven goals given up through eight games, Toronto have the tightest backline across the league outright. The defensive additions in the off-season have proved worthy reinforcements. Centre-half Drew Moor and goalkeeper Clint Irwin have rightly received the strongest plaudits.
However, the defeat in Portland left Greg Vanney questioning the clinical instincts of his team in the opposition penalty box. The strong defence has ensured Giovinco’s haul of six goals has not gone to waste but only Seattle (8), Columbus (7) and Chicago (7) have scored less goals than TFC (9).
“We missed three headers from five yards out. We’ve got to come away with at least one,” said Vanney on missed chances against the defending MLS Cup Champions.
Only the goal shy Chicago Fire have less shots on target (17) than Toronto (28). Next weekend’s game against FC Dallas will be a window into the true attacking potential of this team. On one hand it is comforting to know that 2015 MLS MVP Giovinco has taken 44 of his team’s 93 shots. Only David Villa (54) has taken more in MLS. Based on what we’ve seen so far, Toronto should make the playoffs but unless Jozy Altidore can match or surpass his 13-goal output of last year, a deep run could be jeopardized by the overall lack of firepower.
At times this season, I’ve generously thought of TFC as the Atletico Madrid of the MLS but I question whether they can maintain the discipline shown so far across a full schedule, especially at home where fans may not show the same patient support as they have to date.
The impending summer could see someone like Tsubasa Endoh burst into goal scoring life but an over-reliance on the diminutive Italian could cause problems when creative partners Altidore and Michael Bradley leave on Copa America international duty in June. If Giovinco is called up by his national team for the Euros, happening at the same time, you fear goals may be hard to come by.
For the moment, the good news is that Toronto are creating chances. Let’s hope they can bury a few on Saturday and get the party started at home.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Giovinco stands on the brink of TFC history – a goal against the FC Dallas on Saturday will make him the club’s all-time record scorer, ahead of Dwayne De Rosario with whom he sits tied on 28 goals. It will be fitting if the landmark is reached at the BMO Field homecoming.