Frustrating. Sloppy. Forgettable. Choose your adjective. Toronto FC was poor in a 2-1 home loss to the New England Revolution.
The play on the field resembled the dark and dreary day by the lake in downtown Toronto. The Revs may have come away with all three points, but they were no better than the home side. Two absolute gifts were the tangible difference on the day. An overall disappointing display and now three straight losses for Toronto FC.
Head coach Ryan Nelsen said afterwards it was a "really good" performance by his team. Beauty must be in the eye of the beholder. Toronto FC out-possessed their opponent for the first time all season, which is progress. It should be noted there is a tangible difference between positive and negative possession. The attacking play was all too narrow and lack of cutting edge or decisiveness in the attacking end is a significant concern.
Many will point to the 82nd minute penalty as Toronto FC reverting back to their old ways, conceding late. In truth, the full 90 was concerning. A fully healthy squad meant, for the first time all season, Nelsen had his full compliment of weapons. Coming off a bye week, playing at home should have given ample time for rest, recoup and regeneration. Instead, 50-50 balls were won by New England (56.5 per cent) and mistakes were more noticeable than sustained, meaningful build-up.
Canadian men's national team head coach Benito Floro was in attendance to see three of his international's feature in Toronto FC's starting XI. His analysis of the Canadian contributions had to be similar to the rest of the Canadian team: a work in progress. A late right leg/ankle injury to Jonathan Osorio left the Canadian international on crutches.
If England manager Roy Hodgson were watching, he would have seen a rather anonymous performance by Jermain Defoe in his return from a long-term hamstring issue. Defoe played the full 90 (a positive) but lacked his typical sharpness. Service from the midfield remains an issue and certainly contributed to the non-descript afternoon. There is only so much he can do on his own.
Here are my five thoughts on the 2-1 loss:
1) Shapes of the Midfield - Alvaro Rey was kept out of the starting XI in preference of Kyle Bekker and/or Osorio, however you want to look at it. Bekker was deployed in a holding role, which seems to be Nelsen's preference, allowing attack-minded Osorio and all-action Michael Bradley to get forward. The outside left position is an interesting one for Osorio, giving him freedom to roam, checking in and out of the middle of the field. The question is whether the team is better off using a more traditional 4-4-2 with natural wing players or having Osorio in a freer role. All too often, the attack was too narrow and predictable, easy to play against. If this is the way Toronto FC wants to play, they need more overlapping runs from the wingbacks to make it work. And whether Bekker is ready/able to be a stabilizing defensive midfield player is highly debatable. Nelsen acknowledged he was happy how his new-look middle four worked. To the critical eye, it needs work.
2) Oh Henry - Centre-back Doniel Henry returned from a five-week absence (left knee sprain) and the early returns didn't flatter. It was a struggle throughout, with Henry the culprit for both goals conceded. In the first half, Henry's careless, errant pass straight up the middle went right to Revolution midfielder Daigo Kobayashi. A quick pass to Patrick Mullins and a powerful strike from distance beat Julio Cesar for the equalizer. Credit Mullins, as he still had much work to do. Henry's distribution and decision-making must improve for him to take the next step. Remember, he's only 20. With a physical maturity beyond his years, it's the mental maturity that is a step behind. He's a beast in challenges and will continue to be a frustrating asset for the time being. The final blow on a gut-wrenching day for the defender was his handball in the box, leading to the 82nd minute Lee Nguyen penalty winner. A controversial retaken corner kick and Justin Morrow's ensuing poor clearance obviously played a role. All too often, Henry slides recklessly inside the 18-yard box and this time, he was punished with the ball hitting his arm. There was no argument whether it was a penalty. Henry will have better days. He's still the starting centre-back for this team. That should not be debated.
3) In Bloom? - It remains somewhat a surprise Mark Bloom is the preferred option at right back. Bloom has done little wrong to start the season. He's proven himself to be a valuable squad player on an incredibly team friendly contract. But is he the best option? Bloom provides little getting forward in attack. There were numerous opportunities to get forward and overlap, yet he stays put, falling deep in support. When he does get forward, good things happen. But he's not programmed to be that free-flowing outside back that is preferential in the modern game. Bradley Orr, on the other hand, has more to offer. The Englishman was outstanding deputizing at centre-back with Henry out through injury. Orr is a natural right back however, and seems a better fit to take over the position. Bloom should and will continue to play a role. But Nelsen may do better with Orr as his regular.
4) Action Jackson - The Brazilian midfielder was all over the field, in the middle of good and bad all day long. Jackson's goal was fortunate, taking a nasty deflection off AJ Soares, freezing goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth. It's Jackson's goal for now, but a case can be made for an own goal. The rest of the day was hardly a Picasso. The Brazilian's work-rate is his biggest asset. A controlled temperament is not in his arsenal. Jackson has been involved in numerous questionable challenges on the year. In the 43rd minute, he was involved in the worst of any to date. Jackson failed to control and went in high and late on Chris Tierney, catching the midfielder with his studs up to the chest. Jackson was shown a yellow but he should have been sent off. A little more restraint is needed in a league where more times than not, hasty decisions are made. He needs to be more in control: of the ball, in his decisions, and positioning.
5) Failure to Launch - Nelsen pointed to missed opportunities as being a disappointment. Misfiring Gilberto hit the post twice and still looks a step off and rather uncomfortable in his surroundings. Henry had a header on the far post go wide. And Defoe was crafty in manufacturing a chance late, putting a left-footed strike just past the left post. It's fair for Nelsen to point to the inability to take their chances as reason for defeat. It's also fair to say New England, despite only having 40 per cent possession, missed opportunities as well. Both teams were similar in attempts on goal (15-14), so it's how Toronto FC uses possession that's the bigger issue. Bradley continues to be a powerhouse going forward through the middle. But on a day the opponent is content to sit back and welcome pressure through the middle, it's all too predictable and easy to defend. Toronto FC needs to spread its tactical wings, developing layers of attack and giving more options through natural team movement. If they are unable to do so, they will remain best as a counter-attacking team, relying on the likes of Defoe to take whatever limited chances fall their way. This, perhaps, is not the best way to utilize millions of dollars of talent. Once again, this is a work in progress for all. Progress is essential over the next month leading into the World Cup break. There is still good reason to think this can all come together and work efficiently.
Next up for Toronto FC is a date with the Vancouver Whitecaps in the opening leg of their Amway Canadian Championship tie, Wednesday (7:30pm et) at BMO Field.