The champs are struggling. There is no other way to look at it when Toronto FC is floating just above the Eastern Conference floor and earning under a point per match this season.
After 12 games last year, TFC was flying high on the tail end of a six match win streak; a loss to Columbus the only blemish on an otherwise sparkling record. And it was Columbus that took the air out of the red sails again last weekend, mounting a furious 25 minute comeback to earn a draw after going down three goals. After the match, Greg Vanney spoke about his team's inability to make adjustments once the shape of the game changed. Crew head man Gregg Berhalter made a triple substitution and instituted an aggressive press on Toronto's back line that turned a runaway victory into a breathless affair.
Perhaps most worrying for Toronto fans is that Michael Bradley was at the heart of it all. The captain and perennial standout midfielder has had an uneven adjustment to central defense. What ostensibly should have been a move that gave him more time to see the field has instead made the American international an easy target for pressure. Bradley's ability to create his own pockets has always been underrated, and now it's becoming clear that when teams can quickly locate him, they can lay traps as the ball both arrives to and leaves from his feet.
The absence of Jozy Altidore up top has not helped TFC's cause, of course, but it has been surprising that Vanney, after devising such a flexible, dynamic system last season, has struggled to find answers for his team's lack of defensive depth. Rest assured that Vanney will figure it out in the end, but there may not be enough time left to make a run up the standings when he does.
There is also, it must be noted, an element of bad luck to Toronto's recent woes. Since the end of their CONCACAF Champions League run in late April, TFC has the second best shots per game numbers in the league and allow the third fewest shots against per game. They also have the fourth highest expected goals number according to American Soccer Analysis, and the fourth lowest expected goals allowed.
So much like with Philadelphia Union's early season scoring slump, things are not entirely as they appear.
But the key word in that last sentence was "early." The reds are stuck at 11 points through 12 games, which is worse than all 2017 teams except Colorado, Minnesota, and Real Salt Lake. That last name is the one that should stand out, though, because RSL ended the season a single point out of the playoff hunt, and the Western Conference has not exactly reloaded with clear playoff favorites in 2018.
And, of course, last time these teams met, Toronto walked out 3-0 winners, albeit after Ale Bedoya clanged a free header off the crossbar (Bedoya has two of Philly's three strikes against the woodwork this year).
Attacking the reds
To have offensive success against Toronto, you must have defensive success against Toronto. Or you must hit some pretty crazy shots, which has happened more than once this season (calling Vargas... calling Higuita...). Specifically, TFC's injury-riddled back line shows good defensive shape, but cannot move the ball nearly as well as in past seasons, and this is greatly exacerbated by pressure. So attacking success can come from good pressure that leads to turnovers when Toronto is trying to build, because this is when they push their wide men high and leave space on the flanks.
In the past, committing multiple men forward to press Toronto's defense meant fewer players in midfield to control the likes of Bradley and Victor Vazquez, both of whom can be game-killers when granted time and space. Now, with Bradley as a makeshift central defender, teams can more easily locate him on the pitch, and this creates a frame of reference around which to build pressure and make defensive decisions. Opponents will press Bradley to make others start attacks, or they will set traps and attack Bradley whenever an imperfect pass rolls his way. The experienced captain retains a cool confidence on the ball that leads him to resist punting upfield, but as Vanney alluded to after his team gave away points against the Crew, sometimes playing ugly is just what the game gives you, and you need to take it.
New England's pressure gave Toronto issues, and above you can see both how the absence of Bradley in the center and the presence of Bradley in the back line make Toronto a less effective team.
Another tactic that Houston executed to perfection earlier this season in a gory 5-1 win over Toronto involved working around the Reds’ central midfielders to create isolations on the outside for the Dynamo's extremely fast wingers. The secret ingredient for Houston was quick ball movement once they entered the final third. In the clip below, you can see them rotate from left to right, but Toronto is able to cut off the passing line down the right touchline. The Dynamo respond by simply moving play back to the left, and this time they get the 1v1 they were hoping to find.
And here is that same isolation prior to Eric Alexander's goal in that match.
As these clips make clear, Toronto puts a huge emphasis on protecting the center of the pitch. Against Columbus, they kept numbers in the middle and along the back line, allowing more depth of penetration on the wings, but keeping the ball away from the center (at least until the Crew changed tactics and began pulling TFC players out of the middle like so many yellow and black pied pipers).
Bradley’s influence in midfield
If Bradley moves into midfield, the calculus changes against the Reds. Good pressure can still disrupt buildups, but shadowing the lanes to Bradley, who is excellent at moving out from behind players to create a passing lane, becomes hugely important.
The other way to get at TFC is to pull players out of the center by overloading the wings. This allows a good possession team like the Union to rotate the ball back across the pitch and look for gaps as Toronto's midfield recovers its shape. When Columbus began sending extra men forward after going down three goals last weekend, they found it far easier to penetrate through the center and own the half-spaces near goal. Collecting the ball in the half-space just outside the 18 yard box forces TFC's defenders to step to the ball, and they often become narrow when someone leaves the back, leaving space on the wings for runs behind the defense.
Defending one of the best in MLS
The tip of the Toronto spear is Giovinco, a supremely talented striker in the open field, on dead balls, and pretty much everywhere else. More in the mold of a Bradley Wright-Phillips than a Josef Martinez, Giovinco can drop deep and spread play around, forcing central defenders to come out into space and guard him, which, largely, they can't do.
Here is an example of Columbus stepping in to keep the ball off Giovinco’s feet. The timing of this tackle is perfect, and that’s difficult to repeat because the defender has to come a long way, which means leaving soon after the pass is made and judging the pass’s speed almost immediately.
Giovinco has a habit of dropping deep early to pull a central defender forward, then moving into space to keep the defender out of the back line so the rest of the defenders pull together and leave larger gaps wide. If a defender does not step to Giovinco, as the Union saw in their loss to Toronto earlier this season, he is difficult to contain.
The best way to control the tiny, talented Italian is to prevent him from getting the ball in the first place. Easier said than done.
But one key way to keep Giovinco off the ball is to take everything one step back and stop Toronto's advanced midfielders from being able to receive the ball on the half-turn. When players like Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado can turn in the channels -- between the vertical central fifth of the pitch and the vertical fifth closest to the touchline -- they can use the wingbacks to spread the field or Giovinco in the center to progress the ball. This forces Philly's back line to spread out, or it requires a Union winger to track all the way back and join the defensive line.
Coping without the captain, and the gentleman
The Union will be without Ale Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin on Friday night, and that will put the club's depth to the test. The understanding that has developed between Bedoya, Medunjanin, and Borek Dockal has been a big driver of the Union's recent strong form, and continuing to thrive without two of their big three in the middle will be difficult. On Friday, there will be two big things to look for in Philly's midfield. First, how will the Union build play without Medunjanin, who facilitates much of the ball movement that allows Philly to spread the pitch and open spaces for Dockal to pop into and pass out of. Warren Creavalle will almost certainly start in front of the defense, but he rarely drops into the back line. Thus, how the Union structure their buildups, and how effective those buildups are against Toronto's midblock, which will meet Philly about 10 yards above the center circle, will be a good indicator of how much dominance the Union will have on the night.
Second is the defensive side of things. Although the Union have run out an incredibly young back line this season, they have always protected it with experience in the center. Creavalle brings experience, but who will partner him, and how strong will the understanding between deep midfield positions be? Toronto has used Victor Vazquez in an advanced midfield role or an a second striker role since Jozy Altidore went down injured, and regardless of where he plays Vazquez will try to sneak behind Creavalle or pull him out of the center so Giovinco can show up unopposed. Maintaining control of the center of the pitch in the 10 yards outside of the top of the Union box is crucial on Friday.
Overall, Toronto remains a strong, well-coached side in spite of its injuries. Their poor form this year is no indication of the level of talent at Greg Vanney's disposal, nor of Vanney's own impressive coaching abilities. But it is fair to say that, following a heartbreaking loss in the CONCACAF Champions League final, Toronto has looked more psychologically fragile than a group with a good mix of veterans normally would. The Union need to jump on the Reds early and control the pace of the match with their ability to hold the ball and make Toronto run. If TFC can simply sit in a midblock and counter with wide runners, Giovinco, and Vazquez, it will be a long night in Chester.
The Union can do it, even without two of their most important players. Now they just have to make it happen.