Toronto FC lost ground in the MLS Eastern Conference playoff race on Wednesday night, losing 1-0 to the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania. The loss sees the Reds drop into a tie for 4th place with the Union and the Columbus Crew, who are logjammed at 33 points apiece. Toronto FC has one game in hand on both the Union and the Crew.
New head coach Greg Vanney lined Toronto FC up in a familiar 4-4-2 formation. With both Gilberto and Bradley Orr on the bench nursing slight injuries, Dominic Oduro pushed up front to partner Luke Moore in attack, while the inexperienced duo of Doneil Henry and Nick Hagglund were left to marshall the defence.
Phildelphia played a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Conor Casey leading the line. Cristian Maidana returned to the lineup after missing the last 5 games with injury, playing just behind Casey in an attacking midfield role.
In his first game in charge of the club, Vanney wanted to see more energy and effort from his side, who were coming off a humiliating 3-0 defeat at home to New England. In that respect, Vanney should be pleased - Toronto looked more energetic, and threatened on a few occasions in the first half through the speed of Dominic Oduro. If not for the alertness of Zac MacMath in the Philadelphia goal, Oduro would have had two breakaways. Unfortunately for TFC, MacMath played the 'sweeper-keeper' role to perfection.
Despite the increased effort on Toronto's part, the same defensive failings continued to haunt the club.
An inexperienced back four - missing the leadership of injured skipper Steven Caldwell - were exposed on numerous occasions by the craft and guile of Casey, Maidana, Sebastien Le Toux and Andrew Wenger, who is quietly making a name for himself as a left-sided midfielder for Philadelphia. With no clear leader at the back for TFC, it was only a matter of time before the Union would get their opportunity to take the lead.
There were warning signs in the first half; Doneil Henry being too aggressive, leaving Le Toux in space to try to win an aerial duel that he was never going to win; Toronto's inability to get the ball from Henry and Hagglund into midfield, meaning that Collen Warner and Michael Bradley had to drop deeper and deeper to help, which in turn drew Moore and Oduro deeper themselves. The lack of a commanding, authoritative presence at the back hurt Toronto in both offensively and defensively.
The inevitable Philadelphia goal came in the second half. Many will point the finger of blame solely at Doneil Henry for getting drawn into a wide position by Maidana without ever getting close enough to prevent the Argentinian from turning and playing the ball in behind to the streaking Le Toux. Henry does, of course, deserve a share of the blame. But Ashtone Morgan, Nick Hagglund and Mark Bloom were all culpable for the goal.
When Maidana picked up the ball on the left hand side, Morgan needed to make a recovery run in behind Henry, who had gone out to pressure Maidana. Morgan didn't – he instead decided to pressure the ball. This left acres of space in behind Henry for Le Toux to run into. When Maidana played the ball in behind Henry to Le Toux, Hagglund should have been 15 yards closer to his defensive partner, in a position to at least put pressure on the winger, if not intercept the through ball. But Hagglund was nowhere to be seen - he was instead man-marking Conor Casey some 30 yards away.
With Le Toux striding towards goal under no pressure, he had all the time he needed to measure his centering pass to Casey. Bloom failed to get goal-side of the striker, leaving Casey with the simple task of side-footing past the helpless Joe Bendik - who was otherwise magnificent in goal for Toronto. A series of preventable mistakes at the back that resulted in a simple goal for the home side.
Over 20 years ago, former Canadian national team defender Enzo Concina (now an assistant coach with the resurgent DC United) told me that to be a great defender, one must be able to "smell danger". Great defenders, he said, "sense when something bad is about to happen, and the hairs on the backs of their necks start to tingle."
And therein lies the problem with Toronto FC's young defenders: they don't smell danger.
Ask them to man-mark a single player, and they do an admirable job. If the game stays in front of them, they are able to physically compete. But as soon as there is movement in front, beside and behind them, it's as though they are reaching around in the dark looking for the light switch.
Former TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen has come in for his fair share of criticism, some justified and some unfair. But if there is one thing that I think he and his coaching staff deserve to be critiqued for it is their failure to develop the young defensive talent in their charge.
Doneil Henry has all of the tools a central defender needs to succeed at the highest level of the game. But his development has gone sideways - even backwards, at times - this season. The same argument can be made about Ashtone Morgan, who was sent off in the second half for hauling down LeToux after the winger pounced on a mistake from Hagglund.
All three youngsters should have a promising future in the game, but their development is happening in the shop window for all to see. Every mistake is magnified, and every goal conceded leads to more and more criticism. They will have to fight their way through this rough period, and if they come out the other side, they will be mentally stronger for it. It is a big challenge for TFC's new coaching staff to develop and refine the potential of these young players, but if they can succeed where Nelsen and Co. failed, it will be worth the effort.
It isn't only the youngsters who are struggling to live up to expectations, though. The same can be said for designated player Michael Bradley.
The undercard of the "Bloody Big Deal" that was Jermain Defoe's arrival in Toronto, Bradley returned to MLS from Roma in Italy amidst much fanfare. This was the best midfielder on the United States World Cup team returning to play in the league where his career began. At just 26 years of age, it was argued that Bradley still has the prime years of his career ahead of him - an ideal signing for a struggling team on life support.
However, with the exception of a few games prior to the World Cup in Brazil, Bradley has struggled to find his groove with TFC.
This can be put down to many factors; adapting to a new league, new coach(es) and new teammates; settling in to life in a new country after living abroad for many years; fatigue after coming off the European season, joining TFC and then competing for the U.S. in the World Cup.
These are factors, not excuses. Bradley should be the fulcrum around which TFC operates, regardless of circumstances. But he hasn't been - and that is a major concern for Greg Vanney.
It has been suggested by some that TFC is a more balanced team when Bradley isn't in the lineup. In fact, Toronto's record with Bradley in the lineup is five wins, three draws and nine losses, totalling 18 points. Without Bradley in the lineup, Toronto has recorded four wins, three draws and one loss, totalling 15 points.
The challenge for Vanney is to come up with a tactical game plan that best utilizes Bradley's strengths.
Michael Bradley is a very good footballer - he can, and should, be a perennial All-Star in MLS. He has an excellent passing range - TFC's best chance in the second half came from a perfectly weighted ball from Bradley to Oduro, who cut the ball back for Gilberto to strike - is strong in possession of the ball, uses it intelligently and is capable of scoring goals from midfield. The problem lies in the definition of Bradley's role and responsibility in the TFC midfield.
Bradley is guilty of trying to do too much, at times. I believe that he is a hard-working, earnest player who wants nothing more than to succeed in a TFC jersey. He strikes me as being very single-minded when it comes to setting and achieving his goals. But with a player like Bradley, it is important to establish his parameters within the team.
If TFC are going to persist in a 4-4-2 formation, a diamond is the best approach with Bradley operating at the top. The diamond is naturally a narrow formation that encourages the fullbacks to join in when the team is in possession, giving Bradley width as an option. It also allows TFC to play with two strikers, giving Bradley multiple forwad options with which to play. This formation takes advantage of Bradley's passing ability, which is one of his biggest assets.
An issue with Bradley's earnestness is that he often drops very deep to get the ball. When he plays alongside Collen Warner - who has been an excellent signing for TFC - this is a problem, because Warner is naturally much more defensive-minded. He doesn't feel especially comfortable drifting into an attacking midfield role when Bradley drops deep, as he should do if the two players operate as a double pivot, meaning that TFC cannot build through the centre of midfield. This encourages the opposition to be extra aggresive defensively, as they know the ball is always going to go wide or be delivered long, as opposed to through the midfield.
Finding pockets of space centrally is the key to unleashing TFC's offensive prowess. But in order to do so, Bradley will have to concede the deep-lying playmaker role to Warner, so that Bradley can then operate further up the field. A small tactical tweak that will pay dividends for Toronto.
Both goalkeepers were outstanding. Joe Bendik made a number of clutch saves for TFC to keep his team in contention, while MacMath cut out numerous through balls and denied Gilberto's effort to preserve the clean sheet.
Conor Casey was superb for an hour before being replaced. He gave a lesson in crafty movement and hold up play, and deservedly capped his performance with the game's only goal. He had the excellent Sebastien Le Toux to thank for the goal; Le Toux ran himself into the ground for Philadelphia and was at the heart of virtually all of their offensive play.
Costly defensive errors continue to plague Toronto FC. My worry is that the youngsters will be hung out to dry - not by the coaching staff, but by the court of public opinion. Yes, these mistakes are costly, and fans want nothing more than to see the team win now. But TFC needs to be wary of throwing the baby out with the bathwater; there is plenty to work with defensively if the coaching staff can put in the time and effort to develop the players.
THE STAR MAN
Conor Casey just shades it over Sebastien Le Toux. Both players caused havoc for TFC defensively, but in different ways. Casey's movement, strength and hold up play was a clinic on how to play as a targetman, while Le Toux's energy and tireless running gave TFC's back four palpitations. It was only fitting that the two players linked up to score the only goal of the game.
Toronto FC gets a chance at redemption on Saturday when the two teams face off at BMO Field in what could prove to be a crucial game in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (2pm ET / 11am PT, TSN2)