As far as first impressions go, new-look Toronto FC delivered with rave reviews against the rave green of the Sounders in Seattle Saturday. A 2-1 victory in a tough venue against a difficult opponent eases potential early season tension.
There was nervous energy among many Toronto FC staffers and front office making the trip west how their considerable investment would come together from the get-go. It's just one victory and there's a marathon ahead, but this one impressive, combative victory has kept the narrative positive.
A disappointing performance/loss would have brought out 'same old TFC' critics. It's one thing to make headlines; it's another to keep them. The buzz is real.
There's a whole lot to like re-visiting Toronto's season opening win. Here are five thoughts on the victory.
1) Defoe 'MLS Player of the Week' – A dream debut brace by Jermain Defoe earned MLS Player of the Week honours, global headlines and most importantly three points. This is what Major League Soccer wants from their star, big money designated players: results and instant eye balls. TSN did big numbers on television and radio boding well for this weekend's home opener against DC United (TSN 1050 Radio/TSN).
Defoe did what top goal scorers do – three meaningful touches and two goals in the first 24 minutes set the tone. He didn't have to be a big part of the proceedings to leave his mark.
The Sounders dominated possession to the tune of 68%. Defoe was a factor every time he was on and around the ball. Unlike ever before, TFC can be a danger on the counter with a proven difference maker in front of goal. Superior possession will come for Toronto.
There were six new players in the starting XI and the difficulty playing on turf against a quality side cannot be understated. A consistent effort keeping the ball on the deck will be essential for Defoe to become an absolute force. His movement off the ball is slick and his ability to play off the back shoulder of a defender was key on the first goal.
Based on initial returns, it's not too much to expect upwards of 20 goals on the season from Defoe. Forget the long, high ball – give Defoe the service and reap the rewards.
2) Bradley 'Man of the Match' – Defoe may have won Player of the Week, and it's understandable, but we on the radio side crowned centre-midfielder Michael Bradley Man of the Match. That's not to downplay Defoe's contributions. Goal scorers get the glory. Bradley set the tone.
Bradley's performance was all action, all over the field and of the highest quality. Bradley fell deep in defence in the early stages, recognizing the need to help his back-line as the three Sounders attacking midfielders were finding themselves in dangerous positions finding space between TFC's back and midfield four.
After the first ten minutes and with the shape solidified, Bradley started flying about the pitch, putting all kinds of high pressure on the ball. He was winning tackles, forcing mistakes and maintaining a high tempo. Bradley, alongside Jonathan Osorio won the battle in the middle of the park and allowed the two TFC strikers to remain high and a constant nuisance on the counter.
The American International is strong and quick, and not to be overlooked, his distribution was outstanding at CenturyLink Field. His deadball striking, whether on corners or free kicks, was spot on. Nothing was wasted.
Many MLS analysts were quick to say Toronto 'over-spent' bringing Bradley back to North America and chastised the club for paying so much for a central midfielder. For TFC, it's about winning football matches. With Bradley dictating the tone, they are in good stead. A standout performance, through and through from Toronto's number four.
3) Nelsen Adjustments – The superior work-rate of his players was the bright spot in an otherwise frustrating first year for head coach Ryan Nelsen. There's no question Nelsen is a natural leader and his players will play for him. The tactical side is where many raise questions about his approach. Game one of season two was a very astutely coached match by the manager, pulling the proper strings throughout.
Nelsen's team will sink or swim in a 4-4-2 formation. Other than a hectic spell towards the end of the first half, Nelsen kept both strikers in high, trusting his team shape. It worked. Nelsen switched Alvaro Rey from left to right wing with Jackson moving to the other side 10 minutes into the match to find proper balance and match-ups. It was an important change both defensively and attack-wise. The shifty Spaniard Rey exposed the inexperience of young left-back Dylan Remick finding space down the flank. Jackson proved a better match as well against the talented DeAndre Yedlin, who didn't get down the wing nearly as much as Remick. The move stabilized the midfield, particularly in attack. A wide-open Jackson down the left served as a decoy on the 1-0 goal, and Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei denied Rey after running wild down the right flank.
Nelsen got his substitutions bang on as well. Fresh legs of Andrew Wiedeman came on in the 63' for Dwayne De Rosario, not sacrificing or changing the shape in the team. The Sounders continued to press down their left flank, so a fatigued Rey (who was on a caution) made way for right-back Bradley Orr in the 65' minute, shifting Jackson back to the left, and Mark Bloom into the midfield. Bloom and Orr struggled with the constant Sounders attack, but it was the right call to make. And Ashtone Morgan as a late change killed the clock and was a no-brainer.
Nelsen's formation relies on a strong spine, and the players down the middle of the park shined for their manager. It is just one game, but a criticism-free match for the Nelsen is well deserved. These are important games in the early stages, as much for the players as the manager to reinforce confidence and develop proper role definition in the team.
4) Canadian Quality – 20-year old Canadian centre-back Doniel Henry played his 50th game in MLS and was absolutely solid. Henry continues to grow into his footballing body and has every quality necessary to excel at this level and beyond. Henry showed superior patience to last season and was consistently in good positions of support, winning critical balls in dangerous areas. His partnership with captain Steven Caldwell is all-important to sustained success.
Previously mentioned centre-midfielder Osorio was likewise influential alongside Bradley. There is a smoothness and confidence to the 21-year old. Multiple times he was seen barking instructions to more experienced players, understanding the responsibility in the position he plays. The service on Defoe's opener was superb, looking off Yedlin before sliding a perfectly weighted ball through to Defoe. Jackson was the easy pass, Defoe was the right one. Osorio playing at this level softens the blow of losing Matias Laba through trade to Vancouver.
5) Depth Discussion – Gilberto (hip flexor) and Jeremy Hall (hamstring) didn't make the trip to Seattle, but it's concerning how little proven depth TFC has at present time. Bloom looked out of sorts in the midfield. Canadian midfielder Issey Nakajima-Farran is set to join the team and may add some quality down the wing, that remains to be seen. If he can't, TFC is paper-thin at the outside midfield positions.
Where to play De Rosario is another question. When Gilberto returns, does De Rosario serve as a third striker? Or does he move back into the midfield? For all the effort Wiedeman brings, it's unclear whether he can be a consistent scoring threat. General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko insists the team has flexibility against the cap. If so, the team will be on the lookout for help in midfield and attack.
Toronto FC's Home Opener from BMO Field airs this Saturday on TSN and TSN 1050 Radio. Television - 4pm pre-match/430pm kick-off. Radio - 330pm pre-match.