TFC’s depth and role players shine in win

Michael Bradley and the rest of Toronto FC may have surprised the Crew with their early attacking style, but a close game was put away in the 85th minute and TFC improved to 3-1.

On paper, Saturday’s Toronto FC-Columbus Crew match in Ohio was a mismatch—a certain saying involving the words “lamb” and “slaughter” came to mind.

The Crew, after all, won their first three games of the season with Argentine forward Federico Higuain, one of the most dynamic players in Major League Soccer, in fine form.

TFC, on the other hand, was coming off a 3-0 loss away to Real Salt Lake, and were missing no less than four key starters (Jermain Defoe, Steven Caldwell, Jonathan Osorio and Doneil Henry) for Saturday’s tilt in Ohio.

But it was the Reds who bossed the game in a brilliant bounce-back effort, beating the Crew 2-0 in a score line that rather flattered the home side.

Here are three things that stood out about Toronto FC’s win over Columbus.

’12-18’ guys, role players come through

With TFC missing so many starters—second-choice left fullback Ashtone Morgan was out, too coach Ryan Nelsen stated this game would be a stern test of the team’s depth. Nelsen has always maintained that MLS is a league that is won on the strength of your bench—the “12 to 18” guys as he puts it—and he stressed the need for those players to step up against the Crew.

They did that, and much more. Rookie centre back Nick Hagglund looked solid in his professional debut, showing keen positional awareness and keeping things simple at the back. The Xavier University product didn’t try to do too much, and played an error-free game.

With Osorio out, Nelsen put Kyle Bekker next to Michael Bradley in the centre of midfield. Bekker has struggled for playing time since being drafted last year, but the young Canadian took his chance against the Crew very well, acting as an effective defensive shield for the back four, and covering for Bradley went he went forward.

TFC’s “role players” also distinguished themselves. Dwayne De Rosario and Brazilian midfielder Jackson were outstanding, as they routinely tracked back to help out the defence in addition to fulfilling their attacking duties.

Fullback Justin Morrow (who set up the second goal) and Alavaro Rey linked up quite well on the left side. Right fullback Mark Bloom was dangerous in the final third, playing teammates into dangerous positions with his accurate passes—he set up Bradley’s opening goal in the 11th minute.

Bradley Orr, who came in for criticism for his performance at right fullback against Salt Lake, was outstanding in the centre of defence, astutely marshalling a back line that was rarely under siege from the Crew. Even in his brief cameo appearance as a second-half substitute, Canadian Issey Nakajima-Farran showed some lovely touches on the ball and a deft scoring touch on TFC’s second goal to seal the win.

After the Salt Lake loss, this correspondent wrote that Toronto’s lack of depth had been exposed. Against the Crew, the Reds’ depth players came through in a big way. Does this one performance answer recent questions about the club’s depth? No. It will take a string of similar outings like this one to end that debate. But Saturday’s win was a mature team effort by TFC, and provided genuine hope for the future.

Nelsen spot on with tactics

Full credit must go to Ryan Nelsen—Toronto FC’s coach was spot on with his tactics and team selections in a game that posed many challenges.

Moving veteran Bradley Orr over from the right side of defence into the middle was a smart move. Nick Hagglund needed to play beside a steady hand in his pro debut, and the youngster benefited from the presence of the experienced Orr.

Nelsen could have had his team sit very deep and look to contain a dangerous attacking Columbus side. Instead, TFC aggressively squeezed the field and forced the Crew out wide, negating the effectiveness of Higuain and starving the dangerous Dominic Oduro of service. With Bekker and Bradley protecting the back four, the Crew resorted to playing high balls into the box from the flanks, which Orr ate up.

TFC kept its shape quite well, and the Crew’s attackers rarely got behind the defenders. Save for a 10 minute spell in the second half, Columbus never really looked as though it would score

Bradley outstanding again

Another game and another man of the match performance from Michael Bradley.

The American midfielder ran himself ragged on the night, doing his best to protect the back line and making several darting runs in attack. He made a number of key interceptions as the Crew tried to venture forward, and launched several attacks with his timely and sublime distribution.

All of this despite playing a full 90 minutes midweek for the U.S. national team and being saddled with a new partner in the centre of midfield (Bekker) for the third straight week Together, Bradley and Bekker offered a balance to a TFC side that frustrated the Crew’s attacking players.

Bradley showed real expertise in the final third—on TFC’s opening goal, he saw the play develop before anybody else, motioned where he wanted the ball played and then got onto the end of Mark Bloom’s pass before beating Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark.

John Molinaro in Sportsnet’s chief soccer reporter. Follow him on Twitter.

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