Saturday had a weird feel about it for Toronto FC at BMO Field. One would think advancing in the Amway Canadian Championship on Wednesday would have left some positive residue in the atmosphere. Team-wise, there was momentum contributing to the positive result, a 2-0 win over one of Major League Soccer's glamour clubs, the New York Red Bulls. The energy, or lack thereof around the stadium had another feel entirely.
We shall call it the remnants of a history of failure. Some level of disillusionment, distrust, and negativity still float around to a certain degree. A new culture isn't created overnight. And thus, a change in perception is as much a work in progress as the team on the field
Three straight league losses heading in, Michael Bradley away on World Cup duty, and an unpopular trade amongst some Toronto FC supporters made for awkwardness. There was tension throughout an unusually quiet crowd, somewhat predictable considering possession stats heavily favouring the visitors while the prospects of another dreaded late goal conceded lingered. The heartbreaking goal against didn't come. Contrary to usual script, it was the Red Bulls Bradley Wright-Phillips with all the wrong moves, missing an absolute wide-open sitter. Simply a brutal miss by MLS top goal scorer. Despite waves of pressure, the Red Bulls put only one shot on target, a testament to Toronto FC's stout defensive structure and blue-collar effort. The commitment shown by the Reds is something to rally around, isn't it? I'll take this 'work in progress' over anything we've seen before at BMO, thank you very much.
Four wins through eight matches should be entirely pleasing. The MLS standings are misleading with Toronto FC sitting 7th but playing a league-low eight games thus far. It's the 1.5 points earned per game that tells a more positive tale; tied for the third best rate in the Eastern Conference. Progress.
There will be no convincing a fan base to fully commit to a product without reason for true conviction. Apprehension cannot simply be whisked away. The negative response to Issey Nakajima-Farran being traded to the Montreal Impact Friday (on his birthday) came as a surprise. Issey did fine as a member of Toronto FC. But the trade for Collen Warner is not a negative move for footballing reasons. It's the perception Issey was hard-done-by, with he and his agent reportedly not told of the deal beforehand, leading to the player taking to Twitter to call the move "#Inhumane". Perhaps my definition of 'Inhumane' is entirely different. It's this kind of nonsense, the petty name-calling and lack of communication that can easily be resolved and need be remedied.
Issey is a fine player, but lacked the defensive team play/awareness demanded by the manager. Issey could have remained a squad player in Toronto, and that would have been fine. Acquiring a player in Warner who can fill a specific role as a defensive midfielder is preferable. The wing positions still need upgrading. That would have remained on the to-do list even if Issey were not moved. The entire deal was blown out of proportion based on perception rather than anything tangible about team direction.
So what is Toronto FC's team identity? Although it continues to be asked in the press box and through the rafters, through eight games it seems abundantly clear: a team difficult to break down defensively and one reliant upon the counter-attack. Those looking for expansive, attack-oriented football will remain disappointed for the time being. That's not happening with this squad as currently constructed. Spare me style points, the 2-0 win was trademark Toronto FC.
Here are my five thoughts:
1) The Defoe Effect - Jermain Defoe remains emotional about his exclusion from the 23-man England World Cup squad. It's a tough spot for Jermain. The questions asked about his decision to join MLS playing a role in his exclusion are completely unfair. He was never going to be picked not playing regular minutes at Tottenham either. Defoe was excluded because Roy Hodgson decided to name only four strikers and a glut of attacking midfielders. Is Defoe worthy of selection over Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge or Ricky Lambert? No chance. That's no disrespect to Jermain. From the sounds of it, the lumbering Andy Carroll is the preferred striker on standby too, putting Defoe sixth in the pecking order. It's understandable why Ryan Nelsen warned post-match, "... England will miss him dearly, I think, come World Cup time." Defoe's 12th-minute goal was a thing of beauty: an unstoppable strike after finding space behind the Red Bulls backline (which he did all afternoon). Defoe took one touch before unleashing a shot of the highest quality, top corner. Unstoppable. The power and placement top class, decisive and clinical. It's the type of finish that separates him from most in MLS. Defoe makes Toronto FC a constant danger as long as he's on the field, no matter how the team plays behind him. Make it four goals in just five games for Defoe, while no other TFC player has scored more than once.
2) Moore is More – New Toronto FC striker Luke Moore loves BMO Field. The Englishman scored a hat trick against TFC in a 2007 summer friendly while at Aston Villa. Moore made it two-for-two in games scoring goals at BMO after coming on as a second half substitute in his home debut. Moore capitalized on goalkeeper Luis Robles and defender Chris Duvall colliding, making for an easy tap-in time added on to guarantee the three points. It was a productive 40 minutes of action for Moore, doing well holding up the ball. It must be questioned whether Moore is a preferable option short-term over misfiring Gilberto. The Brazilian missed another clear-cut goal scoring opportunity in the 19th minute. The ball fell to Gilberto on the back post, open inside the six-yard box. Instead of getting his body behind the ball and guiding it into the back of the net, Gilberto lunged and stabbed, with the ball bouncing awkwardly out of play for a goal kick. He has to capitalize on these kinds of chances. Missing sitters as such brings back ugly memories of Chad Barrett or Jeff Cunningham, but even worse because Gilberto is a designated player. The designation matters in our evaluation. Matias Laba was sacrificed by TFC to bring in another goal scorer. Laba could have made for an ideal centre-midfield partner with Bradley. I still stand by the reasoning behind the move for Gilberto – TFC needs goal scorers to compliment Defoe. Can Gilberto be that guy? It's still far too early to make any grandiose proclamation. Thus far Gilberto has let down the faith of his general manager and head coach. More is required, or Nelsen should just roll with Moore for the time being.
3) Orr is More – Bradley Orr has become Mr. Utility for Toronto FC. He has played four positions for the club, and as he puts it, is trying to be a good "squad player". There will always be a fit for a player like Orr, who was an absolute asset Saturday reading the play and helping out his backline. Orr rarely got forward from his central midfield position, and when he did he assisted on Defoe's opener. Orr dropped deeper as the game wore on, basically sitting on top of Steven Caldwell and Nick Hagglund. He was like another defender, in position for help and support. Despite his standout performance, Orr is not suited to play the position full-time. His distribution isn't good enough for the holding role. This is the position Nelsen envisions for Warner. Your guess is as good as mine where Orr will land in his merry-go-round of positions. Nelsen seems ecstatic with Mark Bloom at right-back, Orr's natural position. So Orr will have to remain patient for his chances and continue to be that good squad player. He's an asset Toronto FC will continue to call upon.
4) Hagglund over Henry – The rookie out of Xavier has given plenty for his head coach to think about. Hagglund was preferred Saturday ahead of Doneil Henry at centre-back. Diving in for challenges and a lack of discipline have plagued Henry in recent weeks. Nelsen needs a more reliable, steady Henry to play alongside Caldwell. Credit Hagglund, who took full advantage of the opportunity. After some early jitters giving away possession twice cheaply in the opening minutes, Hagglund settled and his confidence grew as the match wore on, making better clearances and in control as the Red Bulls pressed. It's hard not envisioning Henry as the regular starting centre-back partner for Caldwell for the foreseeable future. Perhaps it's best to have Henry watch a few more games from the sidelines, focusing on his defending tendencies in training, and not forced into game action until he's corrected his issues, namely staying on his feet and finding better defensive positioning on one-on-one defending. Hagglund is a serviceable option for the time being and beyond.
5) On the Defensive – The 12th-minute goal was a blessing and a curse for Toronto FC. Playing with an early lead allowed TFC to fall back defensively for the duration, taking few chances and allowing the Red Bulls to dictate the flow of the game. Parking the bus wouldn't be the best way to describe it, but it's not far off. The defensive shell and rotation by the fullbacks in support has been phenomenal, reflective in conceding just nine through eight games. Playing such a defensive game comes with risk. Sitting back far too much has cost Toronto FC conceding late in matches against Colorado, New England, and Dallas. The commitment remains high but there isn't enough of a concerted effort to get forward, attack, and find that all-important second goal. New York maintained 59 per cent of possession; a terrible number for TFC playing at home. Better ball retention and consistent build up is a necessity as the season wears on. This also has everything to do with getting Defoe involved as much as possible. The ability thus far to grind out results has revealed all kinds of character in the team. But it's a fallacy to expect this kind of play will bring similar results over the long-term.
Toronto FC pays a visit to reigning MLS Cup Champion Sporting Kansas City Friday night at 8:30pm et/5:30pm pt. (TSN/TSN 1050 Radio).
Gareth Wheeler can be reached on Twitter: @WheelerTSN