SHAPES OF MLS
THE FORMATIONS: Seattle made one change to their first game of the season and it was a predictable one with Clint Dempsey replacing Kenny Cooper in a 4231.
Toronto FC were, as expected, in a 442 and all 11 of their starters were different from the opening game of last season.
THE GAME: It turned out to be a dream start for the new-look Toronto FC. Two first half goals from Jermain Defoe gave them a deserved lead at half-time and it was that lead that enabled them to sit deeper and weather the Seattle storm in the second half to win the match 2-1.
Defoe will rightfully get the headlines and we will touch on his goals and how they came about shortly, but the single biggest reason for Toronto's dominance came in midfield where Michael Bradley gave a clinic on how a central midfielder can take over a game.
It is important that we remember the first half for more than just the goals. It truly was a perfect away performance in the first 45 minutes, led by Bradley and his partner, Jonathan Osorio.
Heading into the game, head coach Ryan Nelsen admitted he was unsure how the team would play together and whether or not the combinations on the field would gel immediately. Bradley and Osorio in central midfield certainly did that.
Bradley told me before the game how impressed he was with Osorio's intelligence and willingness to learn and work with him as they begin this journey together and, on paper, with Clint Dempsey dropping in, it looked like the pair could easily get outmatched and leave space in behind them, but it didn't work out that way.
In the second half, Seattle found an extra gear (or three) and, particularly, after they scored, were a real handful with Osvaldo Alonso dropping deeper and dictating the play. Nelsen recognized this and asked substitute Andrew Wiederman to sit on Alonso when Seattle had possession.
Tactically it was a good day for Nelsen, who also switched Rey and Jackson after just 11 minutes and left them on those flanks for the rest of their time on the field. Seconds earlier, Jackson was poor when Dylan Remick got forward and Nelsen was visibly disappointed with his defensive workrate on the play. Remick, unlike Yedlin, showed little more appetite to get forward, allowing Rey to run at him more. Jackson improved as the game wore on and did very well against Yedlin.
For Seattle, it was a disappointing day. They lost Brad Evans early through injury and none of their front six impressed until Alonso took over the game in the last 30 minutes.
THE TURNING POINT: Toronto FC fans have their 24th minute with Danny Dichio, after he scored the club's first ever goal, but Defoe went one better than that, scoring both his goals before 24 minutes had been completed.
THE POSITIVES: There were many on this day for Toronto FC but getting multiple players involved in the buildup to the goals was excellent.
The two were both outstanding finishes in a pivotal 1-on-1 situation with the goalkeeper but it was the buildup to both that once again leaves even more encouragement for Toronto FC.
Exactly a minute before Defoe stroked the ball into the net for the first time, Bradley was deep in between the two centre-backs starting another attack. He played a 1-2 twice with Osorio, then gets Steven Caldwell, Mark Bloom and Rey into the attack before the visitors win a crucial free kick. After that is sent in, TFC take the lead….
Nelsen has gone out of his way to stick to a 442 shape and said he wanted Dwayne De Rosario to play up top with Defoe, rather than deeper, but the game is about in-game opportunities and the first thing you see on the Defoe opening goal is De Rosario coming deeper and occupying Chad Marshall, creating the space in behind. The next thing needed is a bit of magic and Osorio creates it with a dribble into space and a ball perfectly set up for Defoe to run into…
The second goal was also a lot more than just a finish. Bradley began an intelligent press, followed by De Rosario and Jackson to stop Seattle from comfortably playing through the midfield. Then Marco Pappa received the ball and Bradley pressed him again, this time into a mistake…
Pappa's poor backpass put Defoe into space and he did the rest but it is important to note another reason Defoe is on a different level than other strikers to have played for this team. At this moment, before the ball even comes to him, he takes a quick look to see the scenario drawn up around him before he goes into the box to make it 2-0.
THE NEGATIVES: There were very few. For a starting XI who had never played together before this was a very impressive performance. One thing to monitor is the De Rosario position. Bradley and Osorio were excellent but are far from the finished article as a partnership and will need help with someone dropping in defensively, particularly when the game gets stretched.
THE STAR MAN: Defoe was the difference maker and that is exactly what he is. Good teams need goal scorers to ensure the dominance reflected in the performance is the same in the scoreline, but aside from the goals the star man in Seattle was Bradley.
One of the biggest tactical discussions at all levels is around how many players a coach should play in central midfield. At the very highest level it is hard to see teams win championships regularly with just two in that area of the field, although teams like Manchester City and PSG are certainly threating that trend.
In MLS it is definitely possible to play 442 if you have players like Bradley who can do it all.
He is not a defensive midfielder. He is a complete central midfielder at this level, who can ignite counter attacks, read the game to be in the right areas to be an outlet or get the ball to find outlets, and press opponents into mistakes.
On Saturday he won seven tackles and made an impressive eight recoveries that helped Toronto in the crucial transition game.
(see below for Bradley player map)
Toronto FC have waited seven years for a proven goal scorer and on the same day one shows up alongside a midfield maestro who looks like he can dictate MLS games for the next five years.