MLS takeaways: TFC stay focused on Champions League

Toronto FC midfielder Ager Aketxe, left, fights for control of the ball during Saturday's game. ((AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Toronto FC 0, Colorado Rapids 2 (Price 2’, Gashi 78’)

GAME RECAP IN A SENTENCE

With its focus firmly on the CONCACAF Champions League final, Toronto FC not so surprisingly dropped three points on Saturday in MLS play as coach Greg Vanney fielded a reserve side in Denver.

MAIN TALKING POINTS

1. Vanney plays the kids and reserves
Under-strength doesn’t even begin to describe the starting lineup that TFC coach Greg Vanney set out for this MLS regular season contest. Fresh off a historic midweek result against Club America, and with the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League final against Chivas Guadalajara scheduled for Tuesday at BMO Field, Vanney made 10 lineup changes from the 1-1 draw at Estadio Azteca, with Drew Moor the only one who retained his place.

Choosing to prioritize the Champions League, Vanney decided to give most of his starters the night off – and, in fact, goalkeeper Alex Bono, defenders Auro and Gregory van der Wiel, midfielders Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio, and forwards Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore didn’t even travel to Colorado. Captain Michael Bradley did make the trip, but he was on the bench. Defenders Chris Mavinga and Justin Morrow, and playmaker Victor Vazquez remained unavailable due to injuries.

Vanney’s starting 11 featured seven players who had yet to earn a start in MLS this season, and four who hadn’t even played a single minute, including Jason Hernandez, who re-signed with the Reds on Friday (his previous appearance was Sept. 16, 2017). Two others made their first-team debuts for Toronto on Saturday: Liam Fraser and Ryan Telfer. Telfer was one of three players signed by the Reds from the TFC 2 farm club on Friday. Julian Dunn, a 17-year-old from TFC 2 who also signed in the lead-up this game, debuted as a second-half substitute.

2. Lack of cohesion
Vanney’s reserve side enjoyed 57 per cent possession, and produced 16 totals shots in the game, just one less than the Rapids. There was no lack of individual quality in this TFC lineup, but the lack of communication and cohesion was pretty clear from the start. For all of TFC’s possession, they offered very little going forward and hardly looked threatening in attack.

That was to be expected, considering the makeshift nature of the team that took to the field and that most of the players had never played with each other before Saturday.

On the bright side, some young kids and bench players picked up valuable playing time, while backup goalkeeper Clint Irwin, the Reds’ best player on the day, demonstrated his reflexes haven’t dulled due to the lack of playing time over the last two seasons.

3. Champions League is the priority
Vanney made no secret ahead of this game that he would start a makeshift lineup after the Reds flew straight from Mexico City to Colorado following their draw against Club America on Wednesday. As Saturday’s contest was another to be played at altitude, and with the short turnaround ahead of first leg against Chivas, it was the right call by Vanney to give so many of his starters the day off.

TFC won’t be pleased that they dropped another three points, and that they have just one win through the first four games of the MLS campaign. But there is still plenty of time to make up that ground. Let’s also not forget that the Reds earned just one win and a meagre seven points through their first six games of the 2017 campaign. They went on to win the Supporters’ Shield, set the record for most points in a regular season and won the MLS Cup.

The Champions League is the next step, the final frontier. Moments after beating Seattle in last year’s MLS Cup final, club president Bill Manning told Sportsnet they were already planning for the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League. This team’s ambition knows no bounds, and it goes into the this two-legged affair with Chivas as the favourite. They stand a great chance of being crowned the kings of CONCACAF, and if they manage to do it, this loss is going to be forgotten about rather quickly.

KEY MOMENT

2’ GOAL! Toronto FC 0, Colorado Rapids 1: It took the home side 80 seconds to open the scoring. Some early pressure by the Rapids caught TFC flat footed in the back, and Drew Moor made a horrible clearance down the middle. The ball found its way to the feet of Jack Price who had all kinds of time at the top of the box to tee it up before hitting a swerving shot past goalkeeper Clint Irwin and inside the far post. It was a steep, uphill battle for the Reds from that point.

BURNING QUESTION

QUICK TAKE

Vanney’s decision to give Alex Bono the day off was a smart move. Not only did that allow the Reds’ starting goalkeeper to get some rest, but it also gave backup Irwin the chance to earn some valuable reps. Irwin took full advantage of the opportunity, as he made a number of important saves – including a pair of stellar stops on Colorado speedster Dominique Badji in the first half – to keep his team in the game. Irwin put in a man-of-the-match effort for TFC, and showed once again why he could be a starting goalkeeper on most MLS teams. You never know when or if Bono is going to pick up an injury, so it’s important to keep Irwin in the mix and involved this early in the season so that he’ll be ready to go if he is called upon.

INTERESTING STAT

TFC defender Drew Moor started in his 350th MLS regular season game on Saturday. Moor is only the fifth player (non-goalkeeper) in league history to reach that milestone.

MAN OF THE MATCH

Dominique Badji, Colorado Rapids: The Senegalese forward was a handful for TFC’s defenders, as he routinely split the back line with his speedy runs down the channels from deep positions. He forced Irwin to make a pair of solid saves in the first half, and it was his sprint down the left flank that forced Liam Fraser to commit the foul that led to teammate Shkëlzen Gashi converting from the penalty spot to seal the win.

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