Nineteen points in 11 matches played. Tops in the Eastern Conference, second-best in all of MLS, an average of 1.73 points per game. Currently sitting in a playoff spot. Not a bad start, is it? Welcome to the new world of Toronto FC.
Toronto FC entered the World Cup break with a combative 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday, upping their record to 6-4-1. There is nothing cosmic about Toronto FC's newfound positive fortunes. The recipe has been simple: commitment to defensive workrate, sound team structure with a true game-breaker in front of goal. It's been that cliché, yet poignant never-say-die kind of stuff. Just how the team wants it.
The first half Saturday was arguably the best 45 minutes played on the season. Toronto FC went toe-to-toe with San Jose's physical play. The movement, the use of space, the passing and shape were prominent, but it was team commitment standing out the most: 50/50 battles. Getting stuck in. Getting forward and pushing onwards. The simple stuff. A winning attitude is being developed and dedication to the crest has never stood out so much.
We sometimes focus too much on tactics, formations and Xs and Os. There are many reasons teams win or lose. It's oftentimes the basic intangibles that first need to be established before the more complicated follow. Thus far, the basics have been the difference between points and no points. This is the first step and it's a big one.
The bar will continue to be raised. Team approach will be tested. It will be up to the manager and individual quality to take this team from being good to potentially great. The appetite lived up to standing. The main course begins post-World Cup.
Here are my five thoughts on Toronto FC at the World Cup break:
1. Trader Tim – General manager Tim Bezbatchenko has been a busy man in his first eight-plus months on the job. An off-season overhaul was required and mission accomplished, but it was evident the team was still a work in progress to start the year. Too thin at some positions and too weak at others. The ensuing in-season adjustments have followed and have come with purpose and all look to be solid moves. Gale Agbossoumonde, Issey-Nakajima-Farran, Alvaro Rey and allocation money go out, with Luke Moore, Collen Warner and Dominic Oduro coming in. With the acquired players come great salary, but more substance. These are all considerable moves and represent potential starters in exchange for players either battling for roles or ones who have fallen out of favour. Moore has two goals in four games and has paired well with Jermain Defoe up front. He holds up the ball and is a supplementary goal-scoring threat that was desperately needed. Warner filled a significant gap at defensive midfield. It is clear head coach Ryan Nelsen prefers a diamond in the midfield, with a central player sitting on top of the back four. Warner is the man tasked with the job and his true importance will come to light once Michael Bradley returns from the World Cup. He deservedly won Man of the Match Saturday, rarely out of position and confident on the ball. Oduro has just arrived, but adds more pace to an already dangerous counter-attack. He's a proven MLS commodity and a useful player, adaptable to play either up front or wide right, particularly in a 4-3-3 if required. It may be early, but from the outset all three trades seem like a win for Bezbatchenko. The rookie GM deserves significant credit for these moves in addition to off-season trades for Jackson and always-impressive Justin Morrow. Bez knows the league and has massively upgraded the depth of the roster. No ego. No meddling agents. Just business. This Tim deserves credit.
2. Big money, big results – Defoe with seven goals in eight games. Check. Michael Bradley as on-field general, influential leader with a game-winning goal under his belt, looking to be among the top players already in MLS. Check. You get what you pay for. The early returns reinforce Toronto purchased absolute quality. No player may ever justify a $7 million per year salary in MLS, not even David Beckham, but if you're trying to reach for the stars, then get there. Any misplaced cynicism about either signing is gone. These two make Toronto FC an instant MLS Cup threat, no question. The waiting game on the third Designated Player, Gilberto, continues. He has more games missed through injury (two) than goals scored (none). It's been a tough transition for the Brazilian: new city, new country, new language and new life. Never mind the fact he's playing in a new league and with new expectations. Flat-out, Gilberto has been disappointing, but we've seen flashes. The hope is the flashes turn into moments that turn into games. One has to wonder how much patience will be given. DP spots are gold, especially for a club like Toronto FC that can pay for quality.
3. Points earned – It cannot be said the team has hit absolute stride. It has been ugly at times with Toronto FC grinding out results. They have only out-possessed opponents twice on the season and more consistent build-up is essential. Distribution needs work, as does movement off the ball. The learning curve has been made more difficult through injury in the team and a wonky schedule. Chalk up an early season 3-0 loss at Real Salt Lake in the ugly category, while a 2-1 home loss to New England disappointing. Other than that, a difficult schedule has played out favourably and late goals have come, more often scored than conceded. Late tallies against Columbus (twice), New York, and Sporting Kansas City have either won or secured points. It's these kinds of performances that bode well long term. It's characteristic of winning teams to win while not at their best. Progress.
4. Nellie's team – We are witnessing the maturation of a head coach. Nelsen was in a difficult position last year, coming straight off the field as player, late into the fray, into a completely new context as a first-time coach with a subpar team. It was as tough an introduction to coaching as one can imagine. Nelsen survived the off-season purge and was given requisite tools to succeed for his sophomore adventure. He may still have critics, but patience is needed. Week by week, Nelsen's in-game management has grown. His substitution patterns have been spot-on and his read for the game is becoming more apparent. It was a calculated gamble by the previous regime to hand over the reigns to a man with no experience, but a natural leader and well liked within the game. It's paying off. Nelsen was essential to the recruitment of the likes of Defoe, Julio Cesar, Steven Caldwell and Bradley Orr. And it's no secret his players love to play for him. Nelsen doesn't apologize for his team, but he sticks up for them, stands by them and doesn't throw any player under the bus. The culture created is a positive one and the benefits are being reaped.
5. Areas for Improvement – It must be kept in mind the team is still a work in progress and there are clear areas in need of improvement and/or upgrades. Deficiencies in ball possession and passing have already been documented, as have the struggles of Gilberto. Doneil Henry needs to find stability in his game with more consistent one-v-one defending, decision-making and positioning. With Henry, it's worth having patience, as he is a budding stud centre-back. Improvement on the wings is also required. This may come through trade or transfer. The team often plays too narrowly with Jonathan Osorio more comfortable playing inside than on the left side. Tactically, after early season relentless high pressure, the team has become too comfortable sitting too far back in defence. There needs to be a balance here, and it hasn't been found yet. Most importantly for TFC, they must get Defoe the ball. It needs to be much better and more frequent. Defoe's been relegated to being too much of a chaser. Service at his feet is mandatory to ultimately get the most out of their prized striker.
Toronto FC is off until a June 27th trip to New York to take on the Red Bulls (4-5-6).