TORONTO – It’s a month into the Major League Soccer season, and you can’t help but feel that Toronto FC should be further along.
The reigning Eastern Conference champions are unbeaten through their first four games, but have earned just one win and have been shut out twice. While the attack hasn’t been as productive as you’d expect—just four goals scored—things have been very tight on the back end. The Reds have kept three clean sheets, allowed just two goals, and managed to pick up valuable points in each of their three road games.
Coach Greg Vanney concedes that his side should have more points in the bank than the six they’ve collected thus far. But all things considered, he feels TFC is in a good place at the moment.
“I’m happy with where we are. I think we’ve [dropped] a few points along the way that maybe we [should] have picked up,” Vanney stated. “But we have three shutouts in four games. We have been very stingy defensively in terms of the opposition having a very hard time creating opportunities against us.
“I will take that any day. I will take a team who can defend and get [clean sheets] on a consistent basis, and is going to use the season to develop some continuity in the attack and to become more dangerous in the attack as long as we keep getting [clean sheets].”
A former defender himself, Vanney takes great pride in how Toronto has defended as a team thus far.
“I had a coach who once told me if [the opposition] can’t score they can’t win,” Vanney beamed.
While Jozy Altidore has bagged two goals, fellow star forward Sebastian Giovinco hasn’t found the back of the net. Defender Justin Morrow and midfielder Victor Vazquez have accounted for the team’s other goals—nothing yet from captain Michael Bradley, midfielders Armando Cooper and Jonathan Osorio, and Canadian forward Tosaint Ricketts.
Vanney isn’t concerned about the lack of goals thus far from his attacking players, though, writing off their lack of production, in part, to early season rust and the club focusing on establishing a defensive foundation.
“I think we’re making progress in terms of our use of the ball, and some of the connections that we want in the attacking half of the field. I still continue to see clarity and growth in that aspect,” Vanney offered.
“We know with the capability of our attacking group, and the quality of players we have that the floodgates will open. It’s just a matter of getting the one or two to come.”
Towards that end, Vanney believes Toronto has to get out in front of games a lot earlier and try to protect its advantage. In a 2-2 draw against Philadelphia in the second week of the season, the Reds’ enjoyed a one-goal lead for all of two minutes. Against Vancouver the following week, a 2-0 win, they only took the lead in the 76th minute—and that was after the Whitecaps were reduced to 10 men.
“Teams who have to open up, they’ll have to extend themselves to get a goal. We haven’t really forced a team into that scenario yet, other than Vancouver. We haven’t forced a team at 11-versus-11 to have to open up and try come score on us when we have a lead. When spaces open up, we have guys that will exploit those spaces,” Vanney offered.
Vanney also believes that opposing teams are sitting back and dropping deeper against Toronto in an attempt to neutralize what is under normal circumstances a potent attack.
“The hardest thing in the game for us from an attacking standpoint is to break down an organized team who have 11 guys behind the ball in their half of the field…. We’ve faced a fair amount of that over the course of these first several games,” Vanney explained.
“Teams do look for the opportunities to step out and press us and put us under pressure in the right moments. They try to sustain attacks by pressing us in transition. When we secure the ball, we’re seeing more teams get [players] behind the ball quickly to try to minimize space.”
So, what’s the answer to unlocking those teams who drop numbers behind the ball when TFC is in possession? Maybe it’s Vazquez.
Brought in just before the start of the season, the Spanish playmaker has shown genuine glimpses of class when he’s been on the field—whether it be with a well-threaded pass or technical ability when he’s been on the ball. But he’s only made two starts in four games, and he has yet to play any significant length of time together with both Giovinco and Altidore.
The hope is that Vazquez will be able to effectively link up with Giovinco and Altidore once they can form a bit of chemistry from playing together on a regular basis.
“Part of the reason for bringing Victor here is we think he’s a good compliment for those guys. The fact that he sees windows of space quickly and he has the technical ability to put the ball where he needs to in a timely manner. Seba and Jozy are smart runners off the ball—they find spaces and they need the ball at the precise moment to finish off the chance,” Vanney stated.
“Our hope is that between Seba, Victor and Jozy and the guys that we can set each up at the right moments before teams are able to recover, before those windows close, and before [defenders] get around those guys and make it really difficult on them. Our hope is that Victor can be one of those guys to unlock that.”