The Portland Timbers are in Canada and set to take on Major League Soccer's big spenders Toronto FC tomorrow as they look to finish out their recent three game road trip with a positive result. We talked with Waking the Red's James Grossi about TFC and the goings on out in Queen City.
Toronto's big three designated players are the obvious center pieces of the team. Outside of them, who are the players that Toronto leans on and, with Jozy Altidore out, who should we expect to step in at forward?
That is the million dollar question; something TFC themselves are in the process of figuring out. Having relied almost exclusively on Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco - who have supplied nine of Toronto's thirteen goals - the club will be facing the difficult prospect of finding some secondary scoring should they wish to seriously threaten this season.
Michael Bradley, another of the big three, recently provided a goal - and what a beauty it was, more of that would be nice, but aside from him, only three others have gotten their name on the scoresheet (goal-wise, at least).
Robbie Findley is carrying a knock, and has been largely lifeless in his time in Toronto. He could step up to justify his large pay-packet once fit, and should prove to be a useful asset when he does. Jackson is unpredictable, but canny, and is good for a goal or two every few months or so, but cannot be counted on to contribute regularly. Same could be said for Benoit Cheyrou, who took his finish well against Chicago, but as a deep-lying midfielder, is unlikely to score with any regularity. His knack for arriving late into the box could alter that expectation.
With Altidore out for an extended period, it will fall on the shoulders of Jonathan Osorio, who has come to life of late after a listless start, and on the whole side in general making better use of set-pieces, looking specifically at Nick Hagglund to get on the end of Giovinco's pinpoint service (when he gets it past the first man, that is).
Osorio scored five in his rookie season and three last year, so will be good for at least that this year; if he could get into the upper-singles or double-digits, that would bode well for Toronto. Hagglund had two last season, while Steven Caldwell when fit provides another ample target in the box. Damien Perquis, the centre-back reinforcement acquired in the off-season, has yet to look a threat on set-pieces, but should be considered as well.
Altidore's absence will really test the depth of Toronto, especially in that forward department. Being so top heavy is a risk that three-DP teams take. For Toronto to succeed in his absence, it will require a team effort, unexpected sources stepping up, and shoring up things at the back so firepower alone will not determine the outcome of matches.
Coaches have gotten plenty of criticism over the years for playing Michael Bradley "out of position"; what position is he playing in Toronto, how does that fit into the team, and is it the best use of his particular set of skills?
If there was a simple answer to where Bradley plays best, or Waking the Red were the ones who possessed such knowledge, somebody would have determined it already, or, rather than being a blog, WTR would be in the employ of some higher power.
There was a very interesting discussion on that very topic in this week's TSN FC podcast, nothing ground-breaking or revelatory, but succinct and to the point. The crux of the matter is that Bradley is neither a straight defensive midfielder, nor an attacking one: a number ten, or a fantasista; whatever nomenclature one prefers. He has aspects of both roles in his game and to limit him to one or the other would be wasteful, but it makes him difficult to task into a specific role. In some ways the failure comes down to the limitations of the die-cast roles expected of certain positions in the modern game, where every task requires a specialist.
As for where he has played in Toronto, at first he combined with Cheyrou as part of a duo at the base of the midfield in front of the back-line. Responsible both for initiating attacks and providing stability to the defense. The flaw was that neither Bradley nor Cheyrou are true stoppers, nor do they really have the legs to contest in that most active part of MLS midfields. Both could be caught far too high by a quick counter, leaving the lack of pace at the back highly vulnerable.
The result in New England last weekend saw something a little different, Cheyrou sitting deep in a sole central role, supported by Collen Warner and Osorio on either flank, thus freeing Bradley to patrol further afield, bolstering the attack, while still contributing defensively as the game warranted; a free box-to-box type role. That structure was instrumental in Bradley making the scything run that led to his goal. It would allow him to link up with the attack more regularly and was something that may be seen with more frequency, but even it is not a perfect solution.
The crucial flaw in Toronto is that since Caldwell went out injured in the second match of the season, the club does not have a solid centre-back partnership upon which to lean, allowing Bradley and Cheyrou the freedom to play as they naturally would. A weakened back-line requires the cover of a true defensive-minded player, which, again, neither really is.
Further complicating issues, since coming to Toronto, Bradley has played with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, perhaps overeager to prove his worth; so much so that he tries to do too much, gets stretched and without the protection needed has been exposed.
If one were to compare him to the Diego Chara-Will Johnson partnership Portland enjoys (when both are fit), what makes them such a functional duo is that they measure their performances, when one goes ahead, the other stays behind. The number of times Johnson has reserved his natural inclination to push into attack in order to stay positionally sound, especially at home, where he more often than not lets Chara do the running, is a testament to willingness for self-sacrifice. Both are dynamic players too and can cover the necessary ground when the other is caught up-field.
Bradley, at least with Toronto, is positionally undisciplined, minus the negative connotations that statement carries. He takes a lot on himself and in Toronto, he has not really had the required pieces around him to allow him to settle into a more functional, less aspirational role.
In the end, it probably comes down to how he is partnered and how the team is structured around him; given the pieces in Toronto, it would be best if Bradley were to take that central free-role, allowing him to use his judgment to play where the game allows, while stationing a solid shield behind him, in case he gets caught away from any strictly defensive duties.
After their long road swing to start the season, many were expecting Toronto to come in and be dominant at home just like Sporting Kansas City in 2011. That wasn't the case against the Houston Dynamo Two weeks ago in the home opener, but is it still a possibility? Can this team return BMO Field to "fortress" status?
The short answer is no. BMO Field has not been a fortress for a long time, perhaps ever. And that will take some changing.
That is not to say that they cannot be difficult to play at home, they will be. But there are a number of factors that will make the creation of a fortress daunting.
The first is that it is always more difficult to create than to destroy, so when at home the onus to take the game to the opponent is put into the hands (or feet) of TFC; they will have to come out of the structure to take chances and opening up in search thereof.
The second is two-part: that the opponents, regardless of whom they may be, get up for a crowd - something Portland has no doubt experienced, while safe in the knowledge that they can sit deep, clog up the game and seek to hit on the counter; something TFC has struggled with mightily. The Houston match was a perfect case in point, the Dynamo stalling and frustrating, only to take advantage of the chances that came their way.
A third is that this Toronto team is barely three months old. Signing high-profile additions is great, but it does not make a team. A team knows each other intimately, is familiar with each other's tendencies, and functions as a unit. That is a long way off for this group, who should be considered a work in progress rather than a finished item; even taking into consideration that a club, by its nature, is in a constant state of evolution.
Finally, there is a lot of pressure on the team at home. Toronto fans, of all sports, are so hungry for success that there is a constant shadow that looms over any given match. As the match begins, or when things are going well, the place is vociferous, but as the match grinds to a halt, or when the opponent scores, the noise drops to a fretful whisper. The final fifteen minutes of a match, even though Toronto has, for now, locked the goat of conceding late in the shed, are tense times.
That extra weight, of expectation and fear, sits heavily on a side. And it will take some doing to unravel the complexities of eight-years of unrequited aspiration. The next month, with five of six matches at home, could serve to alleviate some of that angst.
Bonus: Care to make a lineup prediction?
Hmm, after warning that this is not a strong subject, Toronto's projected starting eleven for Saturday is as follows: Chris Konopka in goal; from right to left - Justin Morrow, Nick Hagglund, Damien Perquis, and Ashtone Morgan across the back-line, Collen Warner, Benoit Cheyrou, and Jonathan Osorio through the midfield, with Michael Bradley further ahead; Sebastian Giovinco will pair in attack with another forward.
That last position is the tricky part, not only is Altidore injured, but at last check, Robbie Findley too was nursing a knock, while Bright Dike is out on loan - because who needs depth at forward. Some have mused that Jordan Hamilton, a highly-touted homegrown signing, could get the start, and that would be interesting, but the most obvious partner for Giovinco is Luke Moore, though he has looked ice cold in recent outings.
Greg Vanney could throw a curveball of some sort, drafting Jackson or Dan Lovitz into wide attacking positions, but neither of those sounds particularly appealing, and the idea Giovinco leading the line is a near-comical possibility. It is worth mentioning that Eriq Zavaleta was one of those college-forwards-turned-centre-back, but that would be a desperate, if possibly brilliant move - nobody would expect it.