Fletcher on MLS: Toronto FC’s ‘Plan B’ problem

Toronto FC coach Ryan Nelsen. (CP)

TORONTO — We’ve all seen this one before, way too many times.

Toronto FC started well, defending ably and very much held its own. Robert Earnshaw again used his opportunism and clinical finishing to give TFC the lead. And then the Reds became more and more desperate, giving up chance after chance before finally conceding the tying goal in injury time.

That was the story of Toronto’s 1-1 draw with the Union in Philadelphia on Saturday.

It was another two points dropped, though on the balance of play this was clearly one point stolen and to be fair, the late collapse was mainly down to what Philadelphia did, the adjustments they made in the second half.

Similar to games earlier in the season against Vancouver and Kansas City, this was a match of two halves. Toronto’s “Plan A” worked very well in the first half as they stood up to Philadelphia’s physical style. Ashtone Morgan did well on the left, in what was a battle of speed and strength rather than skill with Danny Cruz.

Darren O’Dea managed to get the better of Conor Casey, winning multiple headers from long throws or crosses in to the box. Gale Agbossoumonde, starting again ahead of Danny Califf and Ryan Richter, an early sub for an injured Darel Russell, both did their part to frustrate the Union and keep them to half chances throughout the opening 45 minutes.

In the second half, Philadelphia seemed to realise TFC were more than up for a physical battle and instead switched to a more intelligent attack. Jack McInerney often drifted wide on the right, and Casey dropped deeper, looking more like a playmaker than a target man. Kleberson was brought in and the overall skill mismatch really began to tell as TFC struggled to adapt, and Joe Bendik was called upon more and more to bail out his team, which he did with a fantastic display.

In a way it’s a testament to the work of Ryan Nelsen and his coaching staff. Despite the limitations of the current squad, they’re clearly able to come up with a plan and get his players to stick to that and play their individual roles. That’s a good sign and probably about as much as can be realistically asked for at this stage. They’ve taken what is still a poor overall squad and got them to a basic level of competitiveness.

What’s needed to take that next step is something that’s a lot harder to coach, and will probably rely more on new players to improve the quality of options available to him: the intelligence and creativity on an individual basis to be able to adapt, to improvise and break away from the plan. It’s needed not just for being able to react to changes in an opponent’s game plan, but also to create chances going forward.

TFC created very little against the Union, but once again, they were bailed out by the one player who undoubtedly does have the intelligence, experience and skill to thrive.

Earnsgaw showed off his striker instincts, playing right on the edge, and a few times his runs were slightly mistimed, or the pass delayed and he was offside. Eventually though he got it right, and he showed he only needs one chance, with another clinical finish. TFC have looked very ordinary in attack this season, and without Earnshaw’s opportunism, it’s difficult to see where the goals and points would be coming from.

On the defensive side of things, nowhere was the lack of improvisation more evident than in the Union’s equalising goal, from a long throw on what was effectively a set piece

Yes, TFC had been reduced to ten men just moments before and yes Morgan probably is the one who’d be covering the back post position Jack McInerney occupied, but somebody should have realised the danger. McInerney is the Union’s top scorer and this was no sneaky late run — he was left alone inside the six-yard box from when the ball was thrown in to when it hit the back of the net. Somebody needed to leave their pre-assigned role and adapt to the gap that Morgan would usually be filling. No one had the wits to do that.

Nelsen often mentions building a foundation, and that’s what he’s doing. Getting a team organised, having the individual players know their role within the team and be able to do what’s asked of them is a good thing. When everyone does their part, as we saw in the first half, TFC looks competent and tough to break down. It doesn’t pay to be too reliant on that though, because if one player doesn’t do his job the whole thing can fall apart.

Building a squad that has the quality to battle through adversity, and adapt to changes is something that will take time. Until that happens, we’ll probably see a lot more games like this. TFC are competent, they’ll rarely get blown out, and they’ll force a lot of teams to step it up and bring their best game — sadly, they aren’t quite good enough yet to be able to withstand it when they do.

Duncan Fletcher is a Toronto-based writer and key contributor to Waking the Red, a blog about Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. Follow Duncan on Twitter.

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