MLS is Back: What we learned about Canadian teams at tournament

New York City FC midfielder James Sands drives past Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley during the second half of an MLS soccer match, Sunday, July 26, 2020, in Kissimmee, Fla. (John Raoux/AP)

The MLS is Back Tournament will continue without Canadian representation after all three clubs were eliminated over the weekend in the round of 16.

Despite the disappointing results, there were still some noteworthy takeaways from each team that could carry into the regular season, which is reportedly resuming on Aug. 22.

Here are some takeaways for each Canadian MLS team as they depart from the bubble in Orlando.

Vancouver Whitecaps

Optimism vs. Pessimism

Yes, that takeaway sounds generic. That’s because the Vancouver Whitecaps will split the fanbase into those two sub-sections.

On the bright side, the performances of some of the young Canadians and newcomers were encouraging.

Goalkeeper Thomas Hasal, who made his MLS debut as a replacement for the injured Maxime Crepeau, didn’t concede a goal in 212 minutes. He was pivotal in the victory over the Chicago Fire in group play, then followed it up with an outstanding display in Vancouver’s round-of-16 clash with Sporting Kansas City, registering eight saves.

Centre-back Ranko Veselinovic, who also debuted at the tournament, was just as integral to the Whitecaps keeping two clean sheets in their final two games. He was only dribbled past once in four matches, conceded just three fouls and displayed his abilities on the ball in the process.

Leonard Owusu shined defensively in the heart of midfield, but based on his statistical profile from his time in Israel, Owusu might be better suited to a more advanced role. If the regular season resumes, it would be worth seeing the Ghanaian there with the full roster available.

For as many positives as there were for the Whitecaps, there were just as many negatives. They conceded well over 100 shots in four games, played very deep off the ball and showed little attacking vigour.

It would be acceptable to allow a high volume of shots if they were mainly low-quality chances. According to data from Opta, Vancouver conceded 11.69 expected goals (xG) in their four games, or 2.56 xG per 90 minutes. That’s significantly high for a side that wanted to cede possession and pounce on the counter.

Offensively, it wasn’t much better. There was an alarming lack of attacking buildup in most of Vancouver’s games. Only two teams spent less time in the final third than the Whitecaps, according to WhoScored.com.

The major caveat is the withdrawal of some notable forwards, including Lucas Cavallini. He’s obviously a vital piece for the Whitecaps, so if he was in Orlando, perhaps the team’s attack would be more cohesive and therefore limit the amount of pressure at the back.

Coach Marc Dos Santos will be hoping that fixes some of the issues if the regular season resumes.

Montreal Impact

The attack needs work

If there’s one common trait that the Whitecaps share with the Impact, it’s the attacking struggles.

Coach Thierry Henry appears to have settled on Romell Quioto, Bojan and Maxi Urruti as a trio, with all starting three of the Impact’s four games at the tournament. That being said, the attack remained toothless.

It was apparent that the front three weren’t connecting enough and made it easier for the opponents to shut them down. For instance, Bojan was playing provider with Saphir Taider in most games. But the other two forwards weren’t too involved, as seen below from the win over D.C. United.

The only time the Impact recorded more than 1.0 xG in a match at MLS is Back was the 4-3 loss to Toronto FC, but they had two penalties that night as well. That was also the one game Montreal registered double-digit shots during the tournament.

One simple tweak for Henry is to tell the front three to be more involved off the ball. In the clips below, Urruti and Quioto are too static. If they executed more runs, that would drag defenders out of position and open up space to exploit.

There’s no mistaking that the attacking futility is the Impact’s main concern ahead of the regular season’s resumption.

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Toronto FC

Ayo Akinola is legit but concerns linger about the defence

Jozy Altidore’s lack of fitness for Toronto FC at the MLS is Back Tournament was like deja vu from the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.

Luckily for TFC, they had a reliable deputy in Akinola. The 20-year-old forward was so impressive that he caused a tug-of-war over his international commitment – he’s eligible to represent the U.S., Canada and Nigeria – during the tournament.

It wasn’t just the fact that Akinola scored five goals in three games that made him stand out. It was also his efforts in other areas of the pitch, as noted before TFC’s game against the Montreal Impact.

Even though he didn’t score in his final appearance versus New England, Akinola was still popping up in promising positions thanks to his intelligent movement. That translated to a whopping 0.31 xG per shot.

It’s a very small sample size, but if Akinola keeps earning regular minutes, he could be a threat for the opposition.

More concerning for Toronto was its defensive display in some matches. Even in a winning effort against the Impact, Omar Gonzalez was constantly targeted on the counter and his lack of pace was exploited repeatedly.

New York City FC exposed Gonzalez in the round of 16, but the same can be said about Auro Jr. The TFC right-back has defensive frailties, as evidenced by the 1.24 times he was dribbled past (per 90 minutes) in 2019, per FBRef.com. He was beaten twice on the dribble against NYCFC, who managed to score twice thanks to his delay in tracking back or closing down the opposition.

Michael Bradley struggled just as much against NYCFC, especially in the first half. He was man-marked by Jesus Medina and was forced to make a split-second decision, which led to some sloppy play.

No wonder why Bradley only completed 77 per cent of his passes in Sunday’s game. He had recorded at least an 88 per cent success rate in the three previous matches at the tournament.

It’s not the first time Bradley was pressed or man marked, either. But when TFC is as spread out as they were, it’s more difficult to evade that danger.

Whether it was fatigue or the absence of Justin Morrow throwing the defence out of balance, TFC coach Greg Vanney has to keep an eye on those trends if the regular season continues.

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