SHAPES OF MLS
THE FORMATIONS: When Ryan Nelsen named his starting XI featuring Michael Bradley, Jonathan Osorio and Kyle Bekker, it appeared we could be in for a change of system. Osorio did play a bit deeper than a normal forward, making the fluid system look, at times, like a 4-2-3-1 but, in truth, this system wasn't much different to the one Nelsen has trusted this season.
A high-flying FC Dallas threw out no surprises in their lineup, making just one change from their loss to Seattle the previous week with the impressive young right back, Kellyn Acosta, coming back into the side.
THE GAME: The three goals all came directly, or indirectly, from set-pieces so the game itself was not won or lost tactically, however, the style adopted by Nelsen's team once again threw out many questions about his system.
On the balance of play it was probably a game that no team deserved to win or lose, although Toronto FC certainly should have had a chance to score a second goal when, at 1-1, Gilberto was fouled in the box and a penalty was not given.
It is worth noting how the chance was created in the first place. By this stage the visitors were sitting very deep, defending a set-piece, when Osorio picked up the ball inside his own half and sent a fantastic pass for the Brazilian to rush onto.
The Canadian had a chance to send the ball forward seconds earlier but couldn't connect, but then used his great vision soon after when he demanded the ball get played back to him. Yes, he was deep because of the team was defending the set play but it was another example of Osorio's maturation and what he can do when slotted deeper in midfield.
(Click for bigger image)
From that pass, the referee was a long way behind the play and probably got some assistance from Gilberto getting back up immediately, rather than staying down after the foul was committed. If he had a number of goals scored already this season and wasn't so eager, he probably would have lay on the floor flat out waiting for the call.
Osorio didn't come that deep many times in the game but it was interesting to see how effective Toronto were when he did. In the first half, the closest he got to the double pivot of Bekker and Bradley led Dallas to concede the corner that led to Toronto's opening goal.
Once ahead, Toronto struggled to get a grip on the game. With Osorio playing as an advanced central midfielder it was clear the need to help Gilberto would have to come from the wide areas but this presented several challenges for Nelsen's system.
Jackson is a worker. He runs a lot. He is a poor man's Ramires. This is not a disrespectful comparison. His countryman has been trusted in massive games to play that wide role to help defend the flank (think Champions League semi final in Barcelona for Chelsea) and Jackson certainly does well with that responsibility. In attack, however, he lacks the creativity and that is fine providing it is available on the opposite flank. Goalscorer Issey Nakajima-Farran had an interesting match. He likes to shoot and get forward, as demonstrated on the goal, and that is something this team needs at the moment but defensively he is a weak link in the system (see below).
THE TURNING POINT: Without question, the longer the game would have gone on at 1-0 the stronger Toronto FC would have gotten (as they showed in Columbus) but they conceded a needless corner later in the first half and, subsequently, allowed a simple header to be won to make it 1-1. With the goal, Dallas grew stronger and were able to take advantage of the areas that they were superior, specifically out wide.
THE POSITIVES: Nelsen's squad was down to the bare minimum with seven players all missing through injuries. Of those seven, the most important were, of course, Jermain Defoe, Doneil Henry and Rey and there is something to be said for going toe-to-toe with a strong Western Conference side without them. Henry would have helped significantly with the aerial battles they lost in the box, while Defoe's absence has robbed the club from a chance to really gel a partnership with Gilberto, something that may not reach the heights until August now, if the Englishman does go to the World Cup.
Gilberto still has no goals and the detractors will start talking louder this week but he did all he could with what he has. It remains far too soon to jump to conclusions on him.
THE NEGATIVES: Despite missing those players, there is a clear concern developing around the productivity, reliability and creativity of the wide players. Whether Nelsen plays a 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1, it really is irrelevant. This team does not keep the ball enough so they have to make sure they are better at counter attacks and servicing whoever is playing up front. Jackson's characteristics have been identified but Nakajima-Farran is very different. Like Alvaro Rey, he can be liability defending a flank.
It is difficult to assign blame in this area, depending on his instructions from Nelsen. In a 4-4-1-1, if the man playing off the striker (in this case Osorio) is more naturally a midfielder, rather than a forward, often you might want one of your wide men to go centrally, when in possession, to make up an attacking duo. For this, Nakajima-Farran is ideal. He did it on more than a couple of occasions but the issue is when the opponents react with a quick transition. So far in all of Toronto's away matches, the home side have targeted their flanks. Seattle did it, once they trailed 2-0, and Nelsen switched Jackson with Rey after 40 minutes to counter it.
Real Salt Lake did it very effectively, (with right-back Tony Beltran winning a US call-up because of it) Columbus less so, and, once again, FC Dallas excelled at it. With Nakajima-Farran not tracking back, left back Jair Benitez has a field day in the first half creating numerous overlaps that, often, looked like this with Nakajima-Farran (highlighted) not helping Mark Bloom defensively.
(Click for bigger image)
Like in Seattle, Nelsen reacted to this shortly before the 40th minute when he switched Jackson and put Nakajima-Farran with Morrow and away from Benitez and Castillo.
Both flanks were still attacked throughout, and the home side's full-backs, between them, made a combined 93 successful pass attempts (Toronto's made 44) and although that number is excellent, the chalkboard reveals just how many of them were in advanced areas.
It is clear that, no matter who is playing for Toronto, this is the scouting report opponents will follow. It is up to Nelsen's team to counter that by improving the skills of those playing in those positions and/or getting more of an attacking threat from central areas, forcing opponents to match them up more centrally.
THE STAR MAN: I am struggling to think of a better performance, in the club's history, from a Toronto FC full back than the one put in by Justin Morrow. Is there anything that fazes him? Dallas attacked on the flanks all night but it didn't have anywhere near as much impact down Morrow's side as it did on the opposite one. The left back is a supreme reader of the game, is more than comfortable in one-on-one situations, is physical and moves centrally, when necessary, to help narrow the space and cover for the centre-backs.
Dallas, themselves, had excellent performers such as Matt Hedges who won everything in the air, but for the visitors, Morrow was outstanding. Simply put, he is the best left-back this club has ever had by some margin.