Soccer

Wheeler: Five thoughts on Toronto FC's home opening victory

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Gareth Wheeler
3/22/2014 8:31:29 PM
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Toronto FC started the season with back-to-back wins for the first time in franchise history with a 1-0 victory over DC United in front of a sellout crowd at BMO Field. Jermain Defoe put forth another Man of the Match performance scoring the match winner in the 60th minute. Defoe jumped on a poor defensive clearance after a Gilberto shot on the break and slotted into a wide open net for his third goal in two matches.
 
It was a feel good day for the long-suffering Toronto FC supporters. The poor weather held off, and the sun even came out shortly before Defoe's goal. The noise, the atmosphere, the smiles were back at BMO Field and there's good reason to believe more good times are on the horizon on the lakefront in downtown Toronto.
 
Off-season hype has turned into regular season production. The match lacked the speed and tempo of the opening game win in Seattle but had similar combative elements and superior team shape, boding well for further progression as this group of new players continue to gel. 
 
Here are five thoughts on Toronto FC's home opening victory.
 
Determined Defending – The group was simply dominant, worthy of the clean sheet. Proven MLS goal scorers Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola were forced to fall deep to get involved in the play. Pushing attacking players far away from Julio Cesar's goal has been trademark through two matches. Absolutely no space was given. The partnership of Steven Caldwell and Doneil Henry has provided stability the team has lacked in recent seasons. They have proven an ideal duo to lead from the back – experience paired with sheer athleticism. There's a lot to like. The off-season addition of Justin Morrow flew under the radar, yet the left-back has been among the team's best, a rock down the wing. And Mark Bloom has maintained positional integrity, solid on the night. Although DC United held 63 per cent of possession, TFC limited their opposition to only one legit goal scoring opportunity and two shots on goal. Last week in Seattle, the Sounders only had two truly good scoring opportunities. Keeping the possession to the outside is critical, with Caldwell and Henry being monsters in the air in defending crosses. It must be said goalkeeper Cesar hasn't been caught out of position, creating calmness at the back. Overall, the early season returns as a team defensively have been superior to expectations.
 
Imperfect Pitch – The long and brutal Toronto winter made for soft, muddy and bumpy conditions, making it difficult to play the ball on the deck. Toronto FC took very few chances in their defensive end, choosing to clear more often than maintaining possession. This will have to change as the season goes on. Possession is critical to dictating the tempo and flow, while bringing Toronto's skill players into the game. There was little flow Saturday. I'm not sure if TFC will ever be a dominant possession team. Good news however, they are always dangerous on the counter. They have pace down the wings and creative movement up front through pacey strikers. No matter the conditions, this team will create chances. Give kudos to the team for adapting from one extreme on turf a week ago to succeeding on a soft, slow, choppy surface in Toronto.
 
Defoe/Gilberto Potential – The duo is a work in progress but there is much to get excited about. Defoe's resume and early production speaks for itself. Head Coach Ryan Nelsen commented post-match, "If I was Roy Hodgson, I'd pick him in a heartbeat" when asked about his potential World Cup inclusion. If he continues on this kind of form, Hodgson will have a tough time keeping him out of his England side in a tournament all about timely goal scoring. Gilberto was always the mystery heading into the season. The 24-year-old designated player is a relative unknown commodity, but did score 14 goals in Brazil last season. His pre-season prediction of scoring 25 goals may be too ambitious, but he showed boatloads of promise in his Toronto FC debut. His movement off the ball is intelligent. And although 5'10, the striker plays much bigger, regularly getting his body in between the ball and his defender. His set up on Defoe's chance off the post in the 42' minute was a well-timed run finished with proper service low to the front post. Gilberto doesn't speak English: another hurdle to developing chemistry with Defoe but both players have natural instincts. This relationship will be fun to watch as it develops. 
 
Referee Inconsistency – The replacement officials a week earlier did a better job than Silviu Petrescu and his crew Saturday. Regular MLS officials went back to work this week with the same inconsistencies in their play call that has frustrated MLS onlookers for years. Petrescu was a step slow throughout the match (literally when bowled over by Michael Bradley), but it's a lack of consistency that will drive players crazy. In the second half, Alvaro Rey was taken down after beating two defenders down the left wing – no card was shown, yet moments later down the right hand side, Davy Arnaud was cautioned for taking down Jonathan Osorio on a similar play. Players, coaches and fans alike need to be clear on how a match is going to be called. The overall performance Saturday was subpar.
 
Bravo, Bradley – Toronto FC's number four covers an incredible amount of ground. The pressure he puts on the ball sets the tone, giving little time or space for his centre-midfield opponents. There wasn't much room in the centre of the field Saturday, but Bradley expertly used what little he had, creating both short and long using his wingers to near perfection. It's the edge, blue-collar mentality that will easily win over supporters. The clash of heads with Arnaud that sent the DC United midfielder out of the game was a late challenge. Bradley was lucky not to be cautioned. But it was a challenge he'd never back out of. It's not in his DNA to back out of 50-50 balls. The commitment is true leadership by example. With a gash split open on the back of the head, Bradley received some quick treatment, had a bandage cover the wound, and was back on the field, bossing the play and being combative as ever. The American international will continue to be the straw that stirs the drink. It's hard to imagine Toronto FC now without his presence. Let's wait until June to deal with that problem.

gareth.wheeler@bellmedia.ca
@WheelerTSN

Jermain Defoe  (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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