We've had a couple days to sit back and reflect on Toronto FC's first setback of the early season. Neither the performance, nor the scoreline flatters in the 3-0 loss at Real Salt Lake Saturday. It was always going to be a difficult match against MLS Cup runners-up and a team with minimal roster change year over year. Certain flaws were exposed and much work remains for a team in transition.
On the surface, a 3-0 loss to the casual fan or someone who didn't see Saturday's match may suggest, ‘same old TFC'. That's hardly the case. TFC has experienced its fair share of lopsided results in recent years with the vast majority reflective of a lack of quality and the gulf in talent that existed between competitors. Saturday's loss was more about Real Salt Lake taking advantage of TFC mistakes than any lopsided pedigree between rosters. Team cohesion and familiarity also skewed in favour of the home side. And even while on the back-foot for most of their visit to Rio Tinto, Toronto remained dangerous to the end and is certainly no longer a team you can take a lead against and rest on your laurels.
There's no reason to lose excitement about what this team can be based upon this one performance alone. However, lessons were learned and improvement is required.
Here are five thoughts on Toronto FC's loss at Real Salt Lake.
1. Jer'main' Problem
Striker Jermain Defoe left the match in the 62nd minute and headed straight to the locker room, clutching his hamstring. Gulp. Head Coach Ryan Nelsen commented post-match, “He was feeling the hamstring before the game and it tightened up.” Defoe had a ‘slight' hamstring issue at Tottenham before joining Toronto FC. The severity of Defoe's most recent potential setback has not been revealed. Regardless of the severity, Toronto FC must proceed with caution. Hamstrings are tricky and, if not dealt with appropriately, can linger and lead to extended spells on the sidelines. The extensive travel and varying playing surfaces across Major League Soccer put exceptional wear and tear on the body. Durability is key for Defoe and it will take time to adjust to the conditions of North American football. The team needs a healthy Defoe to be considered among MLS elite. The pre-season injury loss of Bright Dike complicates matters more, leaving TFC all-too thin up front. So the inclination will be to play Defoe as soon as he's deemed relatively fit. There's no need to play hero and play through the injury. The season is a marathon. The long view must be the priority with TFC's prized possession.
2. Difficult Night for Doneil
Centre back Doneil Henry was among TFC's top players in the first two games. The 20-year old has all the qualities to be a top defender in MLS, but Saturday was tough for him and his partner in the middle of the back four, Steven Caldwell. Henry was the culprit for the penalty leading to RSL's opening goal. A harmless, lazy ball was played to the feet of RSL striker Alvaro Saborio at the top corner of the 18; an innocent one-vs-one situation with the attacker's back to goal. Instead of taking a step back and focusing on position, Henry came through the back of the player with his arms wrapped around Saborio trying to get to the ball. The striker went to the ground, making for an easy point to the penalty spot for match official Baldomero Toledo. It was an unnecessary, sloppy challenge from Henry, showing shades of last season when he had the unbecoming habit of diving in and/or over-committing to challenges at inopportune times in vulnerable areas. The time, place and execution of this challenge gone wrong was all amiss. There's much to like about Henry's commitment, aggressiveness and enthusiasm, but he has to pick his spots. Henry has the athleticism to cover a lot of ground, meaning he can afford to take an extra step back and gain superior position while still being aggressive in challenges. Superior defensive positioning and proper decision-making will come with further maturity, experience and direction. Henry will be just fine and a key cog in this Toronto FC team. Mistakes like this are part of the process a young player goes through.
3. Flaws in Defensive Execution
High pressure can be a team's best and worst enemy. Nelsen's team has shown the desire and commitment to put all kinds of pressure on the ball, all over the field. It's often a high risk, high reward proposition, but can leave a team vulnerable if a solid defensive shape doesn't hold true. Toronto FC lost its defensive balance against a crafty Real Salt Lake midfield diamond that regularly found space between TFC's centre midfield duo and the backline. Javier Morales at the top of the diamond found freedom in the gaps, leaving Toronto's defenders not knowing whether to step forward and commit or fall back to cover. Nelsen's 4-4-2 isn't to blame for the breakdown, though - the problem was in execution. If Toronto FC is going to continue to put constant high pressure on the ball, the centre backs need to keep the formation compact to condense the space and provide more support to the centre midfielders. When Michael Bradley commits to the pressure on the ball, the space behind needs to be limited. Of concern for Nelsen, as he tries to get his team working in unison, is a speed deficiency at certain defensive positions. If the defenders aren't confident they can make up ground, leaving space in behind, the tactical formation will fall apart. The hope is superior execution of high pressure defensive play will come in time, as this new-look roster grows accustomed to tendencies and the strengths and weaknesses of their new teammates.
4. Jackson Leaves a Hole
It came as somewhat of a surprise that Mark Bloom, starting right back in Toronto's first two wins, moved forward to play outside right midfield with Jackson suspended. Bradley Orr slotted in at right back, which seems to be the longer term plan once the Englishman finds full fitness. Bloom did a nice job as an outside defender to start the season, but an outside midfielder, he is not. It speaks to the lack of depth at the position that Nelsen chose to deputize Bloom at it. Right midfielder Issey Nakajima-Farran made his MLS debut as a 59th-minute substitute. Whether he's suited for this league and can be effective is still to be determined, but based upon TFC's lack of options, he'll get every look possible. TFC cannot afford to continually have a fullback playing a forward position. It wasn't as if Nakajima-Farran's introduction that led to Toronto FC having success down the flanks. It was more the fullbacks pushing forward than influence from the outside of the midfield. Regardless, proper role definition leads to a level of comfort and greater fluidity. The team will have to find more depth at the wing positions or consistent build up will be sacrificed.
5. Keep the Ball!
To nobody's surprise, Real Salt Lake dominated in possession, managing 63 per cent of the ball in the contest. This marks the third straight week TFC have been short in possession. TFC may never be a dominant ball possession team, able to boss the proceedings, but they have to be much better. Poor field conditions and inconsistent surfaces, combined with unfamiliarity with new teammates are certainly excuses, but it's too many long balls out of the back and not enough service to the feet of the strikers that are ultimately responsible. Defoe, Gilberto and Dwayne De Rosario are forward players who demand the ball at their feet. Having the trio chase down searching balls, while regularly competing in aerial battles, is a waste and hardly how to get the most out of the talent. It starts at the back, but the build through the midfield has a ways to go. This is a work in progress. Keeping the ball and playing along the ground with quality is paramount in the growth of the team.
Toronto FC is next in action on Saturday when it the visits the Columbus Crew. You can catch all of the action live on TSN 1050 at 4pm et.