Bring on the bye week.
It was a difficult Saturday night in Dallas for Toronto FC in a 2-1 loss against the Western Conference best. It was always going to be a tricky test with seven regulars out through injury against one of the top side's in Major League Soccer. Selection is an issue when three goalkeepers dress to fill out an 18-man roster. The return of team leader Michael Bradley to the starting XI and a 21st minute go-ahead goal by Issey Nakajima-Farran gave hope a negative script could be flipped in favour of the visitors. Encouraging plays came few and far between after with TFC failing to cope with sustained FC Dallas pressure and countless set pieces, while reliance on the counterattack didn't come off as planned.
The scoreline flattered Toronto FC on the day, even though the points were still up for grabs until late. A goal-line scare for FC Dallas, a non-penalty call and the frustration of breaking down a stubborn TFC back-line all suggested Toronto FC would escape north Texas with a point. Hard work alone wasn't sufficient with Blas Perez' 88th-minute-winner the difference.
There weren't many positives coming out of this one. The performance would have been a good one if this were a Toronto FC of previous seasons. The bar has been raised. Progress towards a consistent brand of attacking football, while giving some kind of regular respite to an under pressure back-line is sorely needed. The bye-week ahead gives ample time to work on system and, most importantly, for the team to get healthy.
Manager Ryan Nelsen said pre-game he was happy with nine points through the opening matches, especially considering his new look side still growing familiar with one another amidst unforeseen selection issues due to injury. Toronto remains third in the Eastern Conference, only two points back of joint-leaders Sporting Kansas City and the Columbus Crew, despite an incredibly difficult schedule playing six teams, all in the top four in both conferences. Playing without star striker Jermain Defoe for the last three games makes their current standing that much more impressive.
Without further ado, my 5 Thoughts on Toronto's FC's 2-1 loss at FC Dallas:
1. Gilberto goes down... - The TSN Turning Point was the call that didn't happen. In the 75th minute with the game tied 1-1, a Jonathan Osorio long ball played Gilberto behind the back line. The Brazilian was on the ball with a clear line on goal before pushed from behind by Kellyn Acosta. The FC Dallas defender's arm was fully extended, clear evidence of the foul, yet neither match official Jorge Gonzalez or his linesman were close or comfortable enough to make the call. Both referees were out of position, trying to catch up to the play. The replay showed Gonzalez had proper sightlines of the incident, but the referee didn't have the bravery to make a vital call. There is no excuse for Gonzalez here - a penalty had to be given. Inconsistent MLS officiating remains a frustration to many and Nelsen had every right to speak his mind post-match – the non-call was an embarrassment. How many more managers will need be fined and, likewise, how many more disenchanted supporters will it take before sustained improvement in MLS officiating is achieved? There's no question FC Dallas was the better side on the night, but there's also no question that the missed call cost Toronto FC a point, too.
2. … And down goes Gilberto's head – It's been a slow start to Gilberto's MLS career. No goals through five games for the young designated player and very little consistency in his play. The Brazilian was a largely a mystery before signing for TFC and remains so now. What we do know is Gilberto is hard worker with a solid MLS body. His tireless effort putting pressure on the ball and aerial ability are desirable assets. What we don't know, though, is whether he can be a reliable finisher and what his abilities are on the ball. A lack of proper service and attacking build-up has turned Gilberto into an attacking player forced to chase the game and play the role of disruptor. This is hardly the ideal way to acclimate a new player, learning a new league, let alone the language. For the first time this season, Gilberto showed visible frustration by the play around him. He wasn't on the same page with his teammates all night long. He certainly wasn't a match with Osorio up front. The Canadian international is uncomfortable with playing back-to-goal and needs to play a deeper role. As for Gilberto, at one point he got into an exchange with his countryman Jackson after a missed opportunity. His head dropped and the player sauntered back into position for the next five minutes instead of his usual motivated efforts. It's all-important for Nelsen to keep Gilberto's head in the right place, keep him inspired and find ways to bring him into the game. Playing off Defoe, who looks set to return after the bye-week, will help. Designated Player spots are all important in MLS. Big money and a special designation don't allow for much wiggle room in the form of a DP. They simply must produce. It's too early to tell what may come of Gilberto in MLS. All that's certain is he needs to be better.
3. Possession problems – Toronto FC was dominated in possession for the sixth game out of six. FC Dallas, a very good team, worked Toronto to the tune of 61 per cent on the ball and TFC cannot afford to continue to chase the game as they have. It starts at the back. Far too often, the backline is “playing it safe”, clearing the ball rather than trying to keep possession. TFC playing so compact defensively is a double-edged sword - Limiting the passing channels and loading the box have made Toronto terribly difficult to break down, but the problem becomes that the team is falling so deep, there is a lack of balance on the field to get out on attack. The counterattack is only working when their opponents over-commit. TFC needs better rotation and movement from the breakout from their central midfielders and outside wing-backs. FC Dallas worked it to perfection with the wing-back players active getting forward and rotation and support from two tiers in the centre of midfield. FC Dallas had a club record 16 corner kicks Saturday. Sustained pressure put TFC in vulnerable positions with both goals coming from set pieces. The fluidity of the home side was impressive - the transformation swift and pointed by new head coach Oscar Pareja. The short-term counter attack approach has been used by Nelsen out of necessity and can work to a certain degree with the dangerous Defoe on the prowl up front, when fit. Long-term, this tactic will not work. TFC will have to evolve from strictly a counterattack team to one that can build out of the back.
4. Hamstrung by hamstrings – The injury list continues to run long and deep at TFC. Three players missed through hamstring strains Saturday, with Osorio returning from a similar injury. Thigh and calf strains have also been an issue. The reason for so many similar injuries is not known, but is disturbing. Training and playing on a number of different surfaces to start the season is an obvious contributing factor. The wear and tear created by turf cannot be understated, no matter how good an artificial surface you play on. Training methods and physiotherapy techniques will also be closely watched with so many similar injury issues. TFC has wisely proceeded with caution with these hamstring issues, electing to rest players rather than play them and risking further longer-term injury. The MLS season is a marathon. The club taking a long view is a good thing. A limited roster meant for more of a 4-4-1-1 formation Saturday, which simply didn't work. Osorio was often drawn out of position and the attacking formation suffered. There is nothing wrong with a 4-4-2, so long as Nelsen has the players to play the system while staying disciplined in balance on the field.
5. ‘A' for Effort – Nothing negative can be said of Toronto FC's workrate through the first month-and-a-half of the season. Nelsen has his team playing in the mold that he did as a player - fully committed and absolutely resilient in compete mode. It's a testament to the effort Toronto FC were mere minutes away from gaining a point in a game they were outplayed. The high pressure on the ball has been an asset and will continue to be. Toronto FC is no longer an easy team to play against. The role of the manager is more than just sending out a formation and changing tactics. A proper manager needs to be a leader and motivator. There's no question this group plays for Nelsen. As the team gets healthy, Nelsen's challenge will be how to get the most out of his roster from a team perspective. Thus far, the initial response among new players impresses and bodes well for further growth over the long run.
Next up for Toronto FC is a date with the New England Revolution (2-2-3) May 3rd at BMO Field