Toronto FC’s ‘style of play’ a work in progress

Toronto FC's Jozy Altidore, right. (Graham Hughes/CP)

TORONTO—A busy off-season saw Toronto FC plug the majority of its roster holes after an embarrassing playoff exit in 2015, a series of moves that offer long-suffering fans renewed hope ahead of the upcoming MLS campaign.

An experienced central defender? Drew Moor—check. An upgrade at right fullback? Steven Beitashour—check. A new No. 1 goalkeeper? Clint Irwin—check. Depth in central midfield? Will Johnson—check.

These four newcomers, all of them starters, are expected to provide TFC more balance on the pitch, and give the team’s tactical shape more definition.

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But what, exactly, is that tactical shape? How will all these new players fit in? And what will TFC’s style of play be? These were among the pertinent questions asked during the opening of the Reds’ pre-season training camp earlier this week.

The answers? They came in many forms, depending on whom you asked, but club GM Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Greg Vanney, as well as a few players, stressed that it will take time for the team to forge a distinct playing style and tactical identity.

“Getting to a style of play is not something you can do in a snap of your fingers. It’s something that evolves over the course of multiple seasons,” Bezbatchenko said.

“It was something we couldn’t do with the group of players we had in 2014. But over the last two seasons we’ve acquired players that will be able to express and display a certain style that we want to play at TFC.”

But what is that style?

“Certainly, there will be base-line ability to possess the ball. Not just to look pretty, but obviously with an end goal in mind,” Bezbatchenko offered.

That end goal won't likely be achieved overnight, according to Bezbatchenko, especially as the Reds will play their opening eight games of the 2016 season on the road due to ongoing construction at BMO Field.

“To establish our identity at home, that won’t come until May. What we’ve seen in MLS is the ability of teams to have an identity on the road versus an identity at home. They may be the same and they may be different. But we’ll have to see how that evolves over the course of the year,” Bezbatchenko warned.

A major part of establishing that identity will be trying to get more out of Jozy Altidore. The American scored a respectable 13 goals in 25 MLS games last season—21 as a starter. Still, there was a sense that he underwhelmed, and didn’t live up to the expectations of his designated-player status.

Injuries and international absences certainly didn’t help Altidore’s cause. But Vanney also seemed uncertain how to get the best out of Altidore, deploying him out wide at times. No surprise, then, that the former Premier League forward didn’t exactly gel with Sebastian Giovinco, who netted 22 goals in what turned out to be an MVP-winning season.

"My feeling—and candidly through discussions with Jozy—is that when he came back from that initial hamstring injury [in New England] Seba had taken off as the player that he was and we saw,” Vanney said.

"Jozy found himself a little bit trying to play off of Seba and react sometimes to what Seba was doing. At the end of the day, Jozy is a target guy. He needs to be in front of the goal and people need to play off of him. Seba can use Jozy as a resource, instead of vice versa. They need to use each other.”

It sounds as though TFC’s coach is going back to basics with Altidore in order to best utilize his strengths on the pitch.

“In terms of systematic stuff we have some ideas,” Vanney explained. “The key is to connect those two and to give Jozy some clarity on what we need from him and get him in front of goal as much as we can, get him punishing centre-backs with his size and ability.”

The other tactical solution Vanney must come up with pertains to the midfield, especially with Johnson now on board. Last season, Vanney tried a number of midfield structures—from a flat-four, to a diamond, to a five-man midfield. Captain Michael Bradley’s role wasn’t clear. That will change this year, Vanney promised.

“At times last year when we played in a diamond and [when] Michael was at the top of the diamond there was more freedom to cover ground, to drift to the outside and inside, and get up and back. He utilized his engine. But I do realize there needs to be a little more clarity in each guy’s role in terms of how we want to play this year,” Vanney said.

“We have to trust [the players] to do their jobs and communicate with each other and stick with that. … The key is [integrating] the new players into the team and making sure the relationships are there.”