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deVos: Drawing up a tactical review for Toronto FC

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Jason deVos
3/14/2014 10:12:10 PM
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Without question, Toronto FC head coach Ryan Nelsen has better players at his disposal this season. The club's remarkable off-season saw the addition of proven international players like Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley, Júlio César and Dwayne De Rosario, as well as seasoned MLS campaigners like Justin Morrow and Jackson. Throw in Brazilian designated player Gilberto and the sense of anticipation felt by TFC supporters is understandable.

The big question is this: How will Nelsen utilize the talent at his disposal?

Throughout the 2013 season, Nelsen chose to stick with a 1-4-4-2 formation, and if the 2014 pre-season is any indication, it is likely that he will stick with this formation. If that is the case, these are the players that, if everyone is fit and available, I think will take the field for Toronto FC:

Goalkeeper - Julio Cesar

Some have pointed out that despite TFC's struggles in 2013, Joe Bendik had a reasonably good season and doesn't deserve to be replaced by César.

While it may be true that Bendik had a good season last year, it is complete and utter nonsense to suggest that he should be starting ahead of Júlio César, Brazil's number one goalkeeper.

Despite not playing regularly for Queens Park Rangers in the English Championship this season, César is still streets ahead of Bendik.

Right Fullback - Bradley Orr

When Richard Eckersley departed for the New York Red Bulls this year (his contract was structured in such a way that his cap hit was prohibitive, meaning Toronto needed to dump his salary), TFC needed to bring in someone to play this position.

Nelsen has options - both Mark Bloom and Ryan Richter can play right back - but he is likely to select Englishman Bradley Orr as his first choice. Orr joined TFC on loan from Blackburn Rovers, and at 31, will add experience to the back four.

Left Fullback - Justin Morrow

With all of the big-name signings that Toronto has made this off-season, the addition of Justin Morrow slipped under the radar.

After being drafted by the San Jose Earthquakes in 2010, Morrow struggled to hold down a regular place in the Quakes' lineup until 2012, when his consistently strong performances were rewarded with a place in the MLS All-Star game.

Not a flashy player by any means, Morrow will be expected to tidy up the left side of Toronto's defence - an area that has been a problem for the team since the club's inception.

Central Defender - Steven Caldwell

If Toronto is going to achieve success this season, captain Steven Caldwell will need to be ever-present.

His leadership is not something that is measured by statistics; it is seen in the day-to-day interactions with his teammates, his work rate on the training ground and in his ability to remain calm under pressure and deliver consistent performances week after week.

The Scot not only has to do his job, he also has a big role to play in the development of his young partner, Doneil Henry. With Caldwell in the team, I'm confident that both will be taken care of.

Central Defender - Doneil Henry

Doneil Henry has everything needed to play at the very highest level of the game as a central defender; he is strong, aggressive, good in the air, can tackle and is quick and athletic. His distribution, technical skills and positional awareness are a work in progress, but at just 20 years of age, he has so much potential it's scary.

An off-season training stint with West Ham of the English Premier League went so well, in fact, that I wouldn't be at all surprised if Henry is destined for overseas at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Which makes the cries of some that "TFC needs an upgrade at centreback" completely baffling.

No, they don't. They need to let this promising youngster continue his development alongside the experience of Caldwell, and under the watchful eye of Nelsen.

Right Midfield - Jackson

The Brazilian, acquired in a trade with FC Dallas, will slot in nicely for TFC on the right. He is quick, strong, technically solid - and capable of not only providing scoring chances, but also of converting them.

With the defensive experience of Orr behind him, expect Jackson to be comfortable pinning the opposing fullback high up the pitch. This will create space in midfield for the likes of Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio, but will also lead to more chances being delivered from wide areas.

Left Midfield - Dwayne De Rosario

Alvaro Rey could very well be Nelsen's first choice at left midfield, but I am of the opinion that he should find a way to get his best players on the field as much as possible. If Nelsen subscribes to this philosophy as well, then De Rosario has to play on the left.

It isn't his favourite position - he would much prefer to operate centrally, just behind the front two or off a single striker - but De Rosario has played on the left before for both club and country. Given the strengths of other players in Toronto's squad, De Rosario might have to accept a role on the left if he is to be in Nelsen's starting lineup.

Given his attacking flexibility, De Rosario could also be used as the first substitute off the bench, filling in where needed. If that is the case, Nelsen has an able deputy at left midfield in the Spaniard, Rey.

Given the lack of preseason soccer that Gilberto has played, it is also likely that De Rosario will start the season partnering Defoe in attack. If that happens, Rey will play on the left.

Central Midfield - Michael Bradley

One of two major signings for Toronto in the off-season, it is crucial for the club to have Michael Bradley on the pitch as much as possible. If he's fit, he will be in the starting lineup.

For the uninitiated, don't expect Bradley to score double digits from midfield - goal scoring has never been one of his major attributes. What he does bring is composure, tenacity, leadership and excellent passing range - he will anchor the midfield and serve as the fulcrum around which the team operates.

If Bradley plays well, TFC will win games because he will limit chances defensively, and get the ball to the team's goal scorers in dangerous positions. "The General", as he was known in Italy, will be bossing the TFC midfield for years to come.

Central Midfield - Jonathan Osorio

A Toronto native, Osorio had a very good season in his rookie year - five goals and one assist in 28 games - despite the team's struggles.

While Nelsen could choose to play De Rosario as an attacking midfielder in this position, doing so would put a greater defensive burden on Bradley. Osorio is a better option here, because he can not only be a creative force, providing scoring chances as well as converting them by arriving late in the box, he is also better equipped to do the defensive work required in central midfield.

There are question marks over whether or not Osorio can operate as a true "number 10", but I don't think his role needs to be as such. He is more suited to be a double pivot with Bradley - covering when the American makes forward runs, and vice-versa.

Regardless, the partnership between the two central midfielders will be one to watch develop over the course of the season.

Striker - Jermain Defoe

It was a 'bloody big deal', wasn't it?

Jermain Defoe is going to be a star in Major League Soccer. Young (and healthy) enough to have some very productive years ahead of him, Defoe can do for TFC what Robbie Keane has done for the Los Angeles Galaxy - terrify defenders every time the ball enters the attacking third.

Like Keane, it isn't size, strength or even speed that makes Jermain Defoe so dangerous - it is his movement and finishing ability.

Watch for him to drop into midfield to link play and bring others into the game, to pull off on the shoulder of the last defender to exploit space, to make blind-side runs across the face of goal and to have a clinical finishing touch when presented with chances to score.

Defoe has been a goal-scorer his entire career - and there is nothing to indicate that this pattern will end now that he is plying his trade in a TFC jersey.

Striker - Gilberto

The first of TFC's major off-season moves, Gilberto is very much the one with the most to prove.

He carries neither the track record nor the pedigree of Defoe or Bradley, and as such, is something of an unknown quantity. Yet Nelsen felt strongly enough about him to make him the first of three designated player signings in the off-season - which means that Gilberto will be in the lineup at every opportunity.

Worryingly, Gilberto has not played a great deal in preseason. This could see Nelsen prefer to start the season with De Rosario in attack - but that is likely to be short-lived, as the TFC coach will want to get his best players on the field as often as possible.

Given the upgrades that Toronto FC has made - in virtually every position - Ryan Nelsen has the flexibility to employ a variety of tactical formations. He could, for example, slide De Rosario to the tip of a diamond midfield four, with Osorio sliding left and Bradley operating as a genuine holding midfielder. He could also push De Rosario forward to employ a 1-4-3-3 formation, with the Canadian prowling up front alongside Gilberto and Defoe. Another option, if Gilberto struggles to get himself fit, is to play a 1-4-2-3-1 formation, with the attacking midfield three of Rey, De Rosario and Jackson supporting Defoe in the lone striker role.

For the first time ever, Toronto FC has options. If they are to achieve success this season, it will be because Nelsen has found a way to unlock their obvious potential. If not, then his position will come under scrutiny.

Regardless, if you are a fan of Toronto FC, you are looking forward to the 2014 MLS season with anticipation.



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