From the moment Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley were announced as Toronto FC’s new designated players, an air of intrigue enveloped the club. Described as a bloody big deal by the club’s marketing department, it was a fair and accurate evaluation.
Here were two players that would significantly improve any roster in Major League Soccer, and they were choosing to join Toronto, a side that had often found itself near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
A significant coup for the Canadian club, it could spell the end of a difficult time in the league. Having seen six managers at the club since their inaugural season in 2007, including two interim head coaches, it is the current incumbent — Ryan Nelsen — that has piqued interest in the city.
A hard nosed defender during his playing days, the former D.C. United man is now in his second season in management, and now seems to be thriving after three wins and one defeat from their opening four games.
Collecting wins at Seattle and Columbus, Toronto have succeeded despite struggling to dominate possession this season. It began in week one when they traveled to Century Link Field. Enjoying just 32.3% of possession, Toronto completed 266 passes, as the home side recorded over double that figure (569).
It is a trend that continued itself in rounds two and three of the season. As Defoe notched his third goal of the campaign against a struggling D.C. United side in week two, Toronto’s possession share had risen to just 38%. Carry that on to their third game of the season against last season’s beaten MLS Cup finalists Real Salt Lake, and the figure had risen to 40%.
Suffering their first defeat this season against Real Salt Lake, it was the Nelsen’s shrewd tactical shifts against the Columbus Crew that allowed Toronto to get back to winning ways this weekend.
“I attribute this loss to two things, a bad start to the game and to a very well organized Toronto FC,” Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said to TSN afterwards.
Berhalter was right. Toronto’s narrow formation afforded little space for the in-form Federico Higuaín to operate in. That in turn meant the Argentinian was forced deep to collect the ball and made it harder for him to impact the game, as he failed to register even one shot on target.
Their success in shutting down Higuain also showed Toronto had learned from previous mistakes. Unable to silence talented attacking midfielders in recent games against Seattle and Real Salt Lake, they granted too much space to Clint Dempsey and Javi Morales — both of whom punished Toronto, Dempsey with a goal and Morales with an assist.
Forced to operate without striker Jermain Defoe, Nelsen was still able to call upon Michael Bradley. Operating alongside Canadian Kyle Bekker, the duo further shut off space in front of the back four, as Bradley also notched his first goal of the campaign.
Unable to close off the entire pitch, Toronto allowed Columbus space down the flanks and thus the opportunity to cross the ball. However a series of poor deliveries from the home side meant they were unable to capitalize as Bradley Orr recorded an astonishing 18 clearances.
Speaking after the game Ryan Nelsen said: “I thought we were magnificent today. It’s very hard to single one individual out because I thought everybody was just brilliant. Nick Hagglund and Bradley Orr at the back looked like they’d been playing together for a long time together and Jackson had one of the best games I’ve seen him play on both sides of the ball.”
The Toronto head coach was wise not to single out one individual performer, given that Toronto’s most impressive trait this past weekend was their teamwork. A side that has unquestioned individual talent in the form of Julio Cesar, Defoe, Bradley and others, there remained questions on just how well this side would function as a unit. If the past weekend is anything to go by, the answer would seem to be there.
Still someway from the promised land of the playoffs — a feat the club have never achieved — if Toronto continue in this vein, they will be preparing themselves for the post-season sooner rather than later.