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Jack: Shapes of MLS - Tactical versatility needed for TFC

Kristian Jack
3/31/2014 7:30:44 PM
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As I left the broadcast booth at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday night, I took an elevator down to the main level with a family of four.

They were energetic, full of smiles and happy with how their evening had gone.

The teenage son turned to me and asked where I was from. I explained my reason for being there and he immediately wanted to know if I was surprised at the 3-0 defeat suffered by Toronto FC.

His eyes widened when I said I wasn't.

"I dont know too much about soccer but I was told tonight I was coming to see Salt Lake play the New York Yankees of MLS," he said.

Minutes earlier, they were a part of a crowd that chanted 'overrated' towards the opposition.

Real Salt Lake fans know, more than most, what a competitive, perennial MLS Cup contender should look like and the jury in Utah was in. The verdict? Pretenders not contenders. For now.

However, it is hard to think the management at the club didn't see this coming. It is, after all, only three games into the season following a massive overhaul.

Just as expectations soared to ridiculous heights following the opening game win in Seattle, the reaction since this loss has been equally irrational.

The biggest issue with Toronto FC through three games is not squad depth (this can be an issue for all in a salary cap league, plus Andrew Weideman was their fifth forward before Bright Dike got hurt and Kyle Bekker is their fourth central midfielder).

The biggest issue with Toronto FC is not Doneil Henry, who was criticized in some quarters for giving away a first half penalty. He would go on to shine once again following the error.

The two biggest issues with Toronto FC as March comes to a close is cohesiveness and a lack of tactical versatility.

The first point can only come with time. Once again it was another new starting XI on Saturday and the team has yet to play back-to-back games with the same lineup from the start, and because of that, relationships within the team that need to gel for the collective to succeed, will take time.

The second point, however, is one worth following closer than any other story around this team at the moment.

Formations

Real Salt Lake not only presented a good test as a unit on Saturday for the visitors, but also tactically in the shape they play in.

Ryan Nelsen has said 'the formation is only really how you line up at the start' but being a manager who wants to play two up top, he got a different look at how a 4-4-2 diamond works against his team.

The Game

Jeff Cassar's RSL get their full backs forward more than most. I said that in the pre-game show on TSN and Nelsen certainly was aware of this heading into the game. This is how they get their width. However, it was the intelligent decision-making and movement from their midfield four that allowed them space to run into.

Javier Morales ran the game for the home team. His lateral movement was magnificent drifting into pockets of space unoccupied by TFC's midfield. He made the move into the space to help ignite the play for the second goal.

And then on a quick break for the third goal, he again found the space to send the ball over the top for Saborio.

Nelsen's team has struggled in possession through all three games and that is fine when you can transition and counter as effectively as they did in the first two games. However, against a midfield diamond, the outlets couldn't be found.

Alvaro Rey and Mark Bloom were passengers during the first half while the two strikers never got any service. Yes, it can be said they needed to pass the ball better when they got it but the 4-4-2 shape they played really hurt them. Playing two quick, mobile strikers up top means they demand service. Michael Bradley's intelligent balls over the top caused RSL's centre backs some discomfort but the wide players (including full backs) just didn't get into advanced positions to provide crosses enough.

Many funds have been given to Gilberto and Jermain Defoe and when they are fit, they will play, but the game was screaming out for an extra central midfielder to make up the numbers and here is the biggest conundrum the coaching staff has at the moment.

Games are won and lost in transitions and in Bradley, they have a superior man for that role. However, when he, or his central midfield partner, started one in this game it often began with two wingers and two strikers 30-40 yards away.

Defoe and Gilberto will not be left out and can cause massive issues when the game dictates it, matching up 2vs2 in areas, but the use of the wide midfield players can be modified.

Bloom and Justin Morrow, just like Salt Lake's full backs, can get forward (it should be noted Bloom did just that when moved back there late in the match) to provide width and away from home, specifically, Toronto would be much better suited playing a narrower 4-4-2 diamond, giving Bradley more outlets around him.

The American international is a real difference maker at this level and cannot be regularly concerned about the space in behind him because it pushes Toronto deeper and deeper. Yes, it is part of his job but not at the top of the list. Defoe and Gilberto are also not strikers that feast off crosses, although the Brazilian did excel in a number of aerial duels on Saturday.

Bradley, of course, missed his midfield partner Jonathan Osorio on Saturday but the brilliance of Morales, combined with Toronto's shape, meant little would have changed had the Canadian played.

Once fit, against the league's strongest teams, Osorio and Bradley should play just ahead of a more defensive-minded midfielder allowing them to have a much clearer job defensively and in transition.

In the end, it was just one loss in March but as the club goes through a transition off the field, they need to find a way to ensure they can transition better on it.




Golfer Taylor Pendrith is the highest ranked player on Canada's men's national team. The recent graduate of Kent State University is 18th on the world amateur rankings. More...

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