TFC's attack falls flat again in stunning playoff loss to Nashville

Nashville SC's Hany Mukhtar, left, and Toronto FC's Michael Bradley vie for control of the ball during the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020, in East Hartford, Conn. (Jessica Hill/AP)

For the first time since 2015, Toronto FC's playoff campaign ended at the first hurdle after a shocking 1-0 defeat in extra time to expansion club Nashville SC in East Hartford on Tuesday.

Substitute Daniel Rios scored the winner in the 108th minute after a tireless run from Hany Mukhtar to set up the chance. It clinched Nashville's second playoff victory in four days at the expense of the 2019 finalists, who looked flat for the majority of the match.

Here are three things we learned from Toronto FC's extra-time loss to Nashville.

TFC's attacking anguish continues

Having shown signs of decline in the final few matches of the season, how TFC's attack would perform against one of MLS' stingiest defences was the burning question entering this matchup.

Despite welcoming back Pablo Piatti from injury, Toronto FC's offensive woes continued.

Having registered a paltry 1.09 expected goals (xG) per 90 minutes in their final 12 regular-season games, the Reds recorded 0.7 xG on eight shots prior to the 120th minute when they had the late flurry of opportunities.

Sure, Alejandro Pozuelo struggled. Piatti clearly looked rusty after a long injury layoff and both players weren't combining as often as they did earlier in the season. It's also true that TFC was sorely missing a midfielder in Marky Delgado's mould to aid Pozuelo in the buildup. Nick DeLeon couldn't provide it.

But when Pozuelo, DeLeon and others drifted into space between Nashville midfielders Dax McCarty and Brian Anunga, it led to one of Toronto's best opportunities.

When TFC increased the tempo, Nashville's compact shape was stretched, yet the hosts seldom played their usual, fluid buildup in this game and it ultimately cost them.

Better late than never for Nashville

As poor as TFC's attack was, Nashville's tactics were spot on.

Armed by defender of the year Walker Zimmerman at the back, Nashville conceded 22 goals during the regular season. Only the Columbus Crew (21) and Supporters' Shield-winning Philadelphia Union (20) allowed fewer than the expansion side. Therefore, it's no surprise that a stingy team caused problems against an out-of-form attack.

It was next to impossible for TFC to penetrate the penalty area. TFC only mustered one shot in the box before the 120th minute, thanks largely to Nashville's setup.

Midfielders Dax McCarty (No. 6) and Brian Anunga (No. 27) stuck together centrally to protect the centre-backs and rendered TFC's central attacking buildup moot.

But Nashville struggled mightily on the counter. Hany Mukhtar was shadowed by Michael Bradley in the first half, which resulted in hesitancy on the ball and lots of turnovers.

Then, right around the 65th minute, Nashville began playing incisively down TFC's right flank where Auro Jr., was situated. The ensuing crosses were causing fits for centre-backs Chris Mavinga and Omar Gonzalez. At least one of them, from Mukhtar, should've been converted. The rest of Toronto's blushes were saved thanks to the offside flag.

Eventually, a counter-attack led to the winning strike after brilliant composure and footwork from Mukhtar – a complete reversal of fortunes from the first half – and equally appalling defending from Gonzalez.

It's all Nashville needed as it will now face the Columbus Crew for a spot in the Eastern Conference final.

Canada has embarrassment of riches at full-back

Remember when centre-back Doneil Henry had to start at right-back in the mid-2010s due to a lack of quality depth in the position for the Canadian men's national team?

If that's one end of the spectrum, the current situation is the opposite.

Two of Canada's many full-back options started on Tuesday night with Richie Laryea – starting at left-back in place of Justin Morrow – facing rookie Alistair Johnston on the same flank.

Even though Laryea couldn't show off his attacking prowess, he remained sturdy defensively, so much so that Nashville seldom attacked down his wing until he switched to the right after 70 minutes.

When Laryea moved to the right, he was far more dangerous in the final third compared to Auro Jr., against Nashville's Daniel Lovitz. The Canadian should've started the match on his preferred side to begin with in hindsight.

As for Johnston, the 22-year-old was more focused on his defensive duties due to the nature of the match, though he occasionally meandered into the final third after halftime and set up three scoring chances.

These are just two of Canada's options at right-back. Zachary Brault-Guillard of the Montreal Impact and Juan Cordova, plying his trade at Chilean club Huachipato, are solid options, too, though they're more attack-minded when examining their statistical radars.

Long gone are the days of Henry having to slog it out as a full-back against Mexico at Estadio Azteca.

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