It was a classic "Don't ask how, but how many" kind of night for Toronto FC. TFC was second best for long stretches in the second leg of their Amway Canadian Championship tie against the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place. Good, however, was good enough in a 2-1-regulation loss, making the home and away tie 3-3 on aggregate. The scoreline was sufficient to send the game to extra time and, after 30 minutes solved nothing, for the first time in Toronto FC's history, a match would be decided in penalties. All five Toronto FC penalty-takers scored and goalkeeper Joe Bendik saved Kekuta Manneh, good for a 5-3 win on penalties sending TFC to the two-legged final against the Montreal Impact.
It was full value for entertainment in Vancouver and a great night for Canadian soccer. It was end-to-end stuff for much of the match from two teams featuring far-from-full-strength starting XI's. The crowd of 18,470 was electric and the energy on the field matched the enthusiasm. It had a cup final feel about it despite first choice talent watching from the sidelines.
Whitecaps manager Carl Robinson elected to go with a similar young team that lost 2-1 at BMO Field a week ago, making eight changes from his team that won 1-0 at Columbus on Saturday. Robinson brought on more accomplished regulars late in the match as he searched for a winner. You have to wonder if he's asking himself "What if?" Toronto FC was ripe for the picking. Perhaps a more established starting XI could have found the goals needed to advance, but his young, inexperienced side came oh-so-close, and was deserving of a better fate. They were the better team.
Toronto FC manager Ryan Nelsen made five changes from his team a week ago, including three along the backline. Regulars Jermain Defoe, Steven Caldwell, Julio Cesar, Justin Morrow, Jackson and Alvaro Rey were all either unavailable and/or didn't play. Nelsen will be happy with his team's spirit and ability to remain mostly composed against a team heaping on the pressure. The same questions remain of whether or not Toronto FC can be something more than a team reliant on the counter attack. Is it the players, the tactics or unfamiliarity that are holding Toronto FC back from dictating a positive pace in a match? TFC has yet to meet expectations and will now be tasked to move closer to that bar without their best player, Michael Bradley, who leaves for World Cup duty.
While it may not go down as a vintage Toronto FC performance (out-chanced and out-passed by over 100), advancing in the competition is an all-important step in making the club competitive on all fronts. As the team continues to build into a club with true ambition and the framework/ability to do-so, qualification for the CONCACAF Champions League and silverware of any kind are stepping stones.
Here are five thoughts from Toronto FC's Canadian Championship second-leg in Vancouver.
1) Controversial Goal – Whitecaps supporters will claim Toronto FC should never have had the away goal that ultimately sent the tie to extra time. Doniel Henry's 4th-minute goal was highly disputed, but not truly without the assistance of video replay. Bradley's free kick sailed into the Whitecaps 18-yard box and defender Nick Hagglund beat goalkeeper Marco Carducci to the ball in the air. The referee allowed the play to continue, despite Hagglund looking to impede the goalkeeper with a forearm to the face. The ball went off the crossbar to Henry who tapped the ball home. Although it wasn't noticed at the time, Henry should also have been called offside. It looked as though Henry was fair game to make a play on the ball with a Whitecaps defender covering on the goal line. However, FIFA's offside rule, law 11, states a player is offside if he's nearer to his opponents' goal line than both the ball and the second last opponent. Because Carducci had come so far out to challenge the ball and, thus, became the second last defender, it left Henry in an offside position. The linesman was in no position to make the call, playing the defender, rather than Carducci, as the ‘last man' or second last defender. Confusing, but completely understandable, why offside wasn't given. It will go down as a missed call by the letter of the law. That being said, it was the missed call on the Hagglund foul where the play should have been blown dead and that was the bigger injustice for me.
2) Oh Henry, again – Sloppy challenges by Henry continue to provide ample ammunition for his detractors. The Canadian international has all the physical attributes and intangibles hinting at sky-high potential. The 21-year-old's night won't be remembered for his goal, but instead a series of questionable tackles, playing his team into trouble. Henry simply needs to learn to stay on his feet in vulnerable areas. The timing, placement and manner of his challenges were front and centre on three separate occasions. Henry was fortunate not to be called for a penalty on a tight challenge on Manneh early in the first half. Early in the second half, he was cautioned for a diving challenge from behind, dangerously close to being inside the box. Henry's third mistake came in the 85th-minute, diving in from behind once again against Erik Hurtado, making for an easy penalty decision, leading to Vancouver's 2-1 goal. There was no arguing the decision and it was the third penalty Henry has conceded on the year. Far better is required, but Nelsen will continue to live and die with his young centre-back. He has far too much promise to sit on the bench. Nelsen, a former defender himself, needs to continue to preach patience and positioning with his young player. Maturity in these kinds of decisions will become more critical as the season wears on.
3) Midfield Meltdown – If you're a regular in this space, it will come as no surprise seeing criticism on Toronto FC's ability to hold on to the ball and build sustained attacking play. Toronto FC's midfield was overrun again this match with the Whitecaps having more than 55 per cent of possession. It's troubling how cheaply TFC gives the ball away, making it difficult for the midfield four, consistently falling too deep and not in position to support the forwards. The problem was further complicated Wednesday with more natural wing-players Rey and Jackson not in the team. It must be said that the team had better stretches late in the game with Daniel Lovitz, making his TFC debut, looking comfortable on the ball. Systematically, Nelsen may need to add an attacking midfielder, resorting to a 4-5-1, to provide more support and a player to link the attack.
4) Questioning Nelsen – It is remarkable how many TFC supporters are openly questioning the manager this early in the season. For a club with a history of being a conveyor belt for managers, you'd think common sense would prevail in having some patience and seeing this process out before jumping to conclusions. Some are not convinced in Nelsen's tactical approach. While it's true the team isn't playing the free-flowing football many desire, it must be acknowledged a team with so many new players and a squad that has dealt with a number of early season injuries will take time develop said cohesiveness. Nelsen's reluctance to move away from a preferred 4-4-2 has been decried by many, but that, too, is a work in progress. This is only Nelsen's second season as a manager. Last year's team was too short on talent to make any reasonable conclusion of Nelsen's managerial abilities. What we do know is this team will fight and play for him. Nelsen is a player's manager and is well liked within and around the room. His decision-making and adjustments certainly need work. It was peculiar that Hagglund started at right back when he is a preferred centre back and Bradley Orr started at centre back when he is a preferred right back. That being said, he has pulled the right strings earlier this season, namely in Columbus and Seattle, and continues to discover what he has and doesn't have. Time is required and a better evaluation will come months from now, not in May. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
5) Not-so Average Joe – Goalkeeper Joe Bendik was not overly impressed losing his starting job to Julio Cesar this season. With Cesar set to go on his World Cup adventure, Bendik was handed another start, in back-to-back games, and he didn't disappoint. Bendik came up big as the game opened up in the second half, coming off of his line multiple times, diving at the feet of an attacker and taking away goal-scoring opportunities. He kept them in the game when needed most, not to mention his penalty save. Goalkeeping is and will continue to be a position of strength for Toronto FC. The team has confidence in Bendik and will be comfortable with their "number two" while Cesar is on international duty. It's reassuring that Bendik has taken this short term setback in stride and looks to prove himself worthy as a starting goalkeeper in Major League Soccer.
Toronto FC (3-0-4) welcomes the New York Red Bulls (3-5-3) to BMO Field Saturday at 430pm (TSN, TSN 1050 Radio).