No Defoe. No Osorio. No Caldwell. No Henry. No problem. Forget any relative significance of rivalry week in Major League Soccer, or the Trillium Cup. Toronto FC provided much more substance in a hard fought 2-0 victory against the previously perfect Columbus Crew.
The win was the ideal tonic for a depleted squad coming off a 3-0 loss at Real Salt Lake a week prior, which rose more than a few speculative eyebrows as to TFC's contending credentials. The negative narrative was entirely premature, with the team showing plenty of positive signs despite the ugly scoreline. Some onlookers had already written off TFC's chances before a ball was even kicked at Crew Stadium. Forget a poor all-time record in Columbus and what Toronto FC was missing Saturday; a superior work-rate and improvements in tactical execution led to a deserved three points. It was a feel good day all around, and one that can be pointed to as a clear indication the team has significant substance beyond those with Designated Player credentials.
Here are my Five Thoughts on Toronto's FC's 2-0 victory in Columbus.
1) Brad and Nick – The names read like two members of a boy band and when announced as the centre back starters neither were music to the ears of the Toronto FC faithful. Contrary to expectations, both were outstanding and the biggest reason TFC came away with three points. The veteran Englishmen and rookie American, in front of family and friends, put on an absolute defensive clinic. Orr, naturally a right back was forced to deputize as central defender with captain Steven Caldwell out through suspension and Doniel Henry through injury. Orr led by example, vocal and positionally sound, getting stuck in with timely tackles. He amassed an incredible 17 clearances in his first full 90 minutes of action as he works his way back to fitness. His stand-out play gives the manager a decision on whether to stick with the likewise impressive Mark Bloom at right back or hand the job to Orr once the regular centre back pairing returns to action. His partner in central defence, Nick Hagglund playing in his first MLS game, hardly looked out of place. The Xavier product was steady, showing requisite physical qualities and not shirking from the monumental task at hand. The 21-year-old has good size at 6'1", 193 lbs and initial returns bode well for a future at the professional level. The duo gave Toronto FC killer Dominic Oduro and one of MLS top attacking players, Federico Higuain nothing to work with. Space was limited, channels were cut out and Higuain found himself dropping into deep positions to gain possession of the ball. Most important was a disciplined back-line eliminating the gaps that plagued TFC in Salt Lake. Saturday reinforces Toronto FC has more than enough depth at the back, so much so that regular centre-back from a season ago, Gale Agbossoumonde, was left as an unused substitute.
2) Justin and Jackson – Toronto's new double J continue to be key contributors for their new team. The prior, Justin Morrow, a former MLS All-Star has arguably been Toronto's most consistent player after Michael Bradley this season. Morrow is a quality MLS defender, yet his off-season arrival was completely overshadowed by the club's big money Designated Player signings. Morrow has been every bit as important, with the 26-year-old dynamite getting forward in attack and more than capable defensively. Morrow astutely started the movement leading to Toronto FC's first goal Saturday. Although he has a tendency to leave too much room between himself and his mark, his speed and ability to read the game rarely puts him in trouble. And all it took was allocation money to pry a solid MLS defender with a manageable contract to Toronto: an absolute coup for general manager Tim Bezbatchenko. Likewise, it only took a 2015 second round draft pick and allocation money to bring the dependable midfielder Jackson to Toronto FC from FC Dallas. The back-to-back games at Real Salt Lake and Columbus, with and without the Brazilian shows how important he is to team success. Jackson's work rate was second to none in Columbus; covering an incredible amount of ground, consistently back in recovery. Some have been critical of his first touch on the ball and distribution, and he'll never be a regular goal scorer from the midfield. But Jackson does enough else well to make up for any shortcomings. The outside midfield positions are where TFC has little depth. Jackson will continue to be relied upon as a steady influence. The successful courtship of the likes of Defoe and Bradley had much to do with MLSE's financial might. But the shrewd pickups of Morrow and Jackson are proving outstanding work by Bezbatchenko filling the many holes on this team with quality MLS players.
3) Bradley bags his first – Mr. Everything for Toronto FC added goal scoring to his already impressive resume. The 11th minute game-winner came down to an intelligent run deep inside the 18-yard box and Bradley hitting first-time on the run, keeping it low, forcing a save from the goalkeeper. Steve Clark should have done better and Bradley won't often score from such a tight angle, but the strike had pace, was hit low and hit well. The goal was the icing on the cake for another standout, Man of the Match type performance. Bradley put in 73 minutes of tireless highball pressure, setting the tone in the middle of the park. Bradley, alongside Kyle Bekker controlled the shape of the midfield, providing a more compact alignment with fewer holes than the previous week in Salt Lake, where Bradley next to Jeremy Hall were not on the same page with the defensive line behind. Bradley's performance was even more impressive coming off US Men's National team duty three days earlier, scoring a goal in 90 minutes of action against Mexico. Bradley will continue to be Toronto FC's most important player as the year rolls on.
4) Getting Gilberto Going – The Brazilian Designated Player continues to work hard and show glimpses, but is a step off in his MLS transition. Gilberto hasn't experienced as smooth of an adjustment to MLS life his strike mate Jermain Defoe had prior to injury. Gilberto was hampered by injury in the pre-season, and the difficulty thus far isn't entirely of his own doing. This isn't to call out Gilberto. He's been fine. But Designated Players are expected to be another level, with money and valuable designation invested in the player. Toronto FC has to be better in distribution, bringing Gilberto into the game with superior service. Far too many times Gilberto has been engaged in aerial battles and relied upon to chase down the game. Let's see what he can do with the ball at his feet. He looks strong in stature and has good technique when on the ball. It's a matter of time, rather than if Gilberto gets going. If Defoe is out for any extended period, the team will need more from their young striker with little in terms of proven goal-scorers behind he in the pecking order.
5) When hard work is good enough – The entire team should be applauded for putting forth an impressive performance in Columbus. They fight for one another and appear to be playing in the mold of their manager. The aggressive, physical, relentless approach works well in MLS; a league not always predicated on consistently strong interplay. That being said, the team needs to find a way to hold on to the ball better with greater efficiency. TFC has been dominated in possession in four straight matches. Success can be found being a counter-attack team week in, week out, but it's hardly sufficient to become a top MLS team. More clinical teams in front of goal and on a day Julio Cesar may not be at his best, battling against sustained pressure will be punished. These players are still relatively new to one another. But a gradual build in possession play will be expected as this team progresses. The hard work and commitment is the first step. The team has bought in. The coming weeks will be about adding polish to the finish.
Toronto FC (3-0-1) hosts the Colorado Rapids (2-1-1) Saturday at BMO Field. (MLS on TSN, 4pm et/1pm pt)