Defence to remain a guiding principle for Toronto FC in 2017

Goalkeeper Clint Irwin, far right, in action for Toronto FC. (Adam Hunger/AP)

• TFC had 2nd best defence in MLS in 2016
• Core of defence back for Reds in 2017
• Irwin a goalkeeping upgrade

TORONTO—Defence.

That was the watchword for Toronto FC during the 2016 Major League Soccer campaign.

Right from the start of the pre-season, all the way through training camp and the regular season, and on into the playoffs and during the team’s magical run to the MLS Cup final, coach Greg Vanney drilled into his players the importance of maintaining a solid defensive posture at all times.

It was hardly a surprise that Vanney put a strong emphasis on being organized in defence and players making defensively responsible decisions. Vanney was, after all, a former defender of some repute during his playing day who plied his trade for the United States national team and in MLS (most notably with the LA Galaxy) and abroad (with French club Bastia).

“For us, [defence] needs to be our calling card again.” — Clint Irwin

More to the point, though, Toronto was one of the worst defensive teams in MLS in 2015, Vanney’s first full season in charge. The Reds coughed up 58 goals that year, tied for the worst defensive record in the league. Veteran defenders Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour were brought in prior to the start of last season, as was defensive midfielder Will Johnson, giving Vanney valuable assets to help him put his new defensive scheme into place.

Club president Bill Manning set a public target, wanting the team to concede fewer than 45 goals. The results, to say the least, were startling. Toronto went from being one of the worst defensive outfits in 2015 to one of the best in 2016, conceding only 39 goals last term.

TFC opened training camp earlier this week, and not every player is in town—Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore are away with the U.S. national team—and the focus early on is player fitness. As such, Vanney hasn’t communicated to his players an overall theme or specific objectives for the 2017 MLS campaign.

But it’s clear from talking to Vanney that defensive organization on the pitch will remain one of his guiding principles. Last year, injuries to key players (such as forward Jozy Altidore) and other factors contributed to Vanney using a number of systems. This year, Vanney wants to focus on maintaining a solid defensive posture that is seamless, regardless of the tactical formation he uses.

“Last year we bounced around a little bit—we started the season in one system because we knew we were going to start on the road. We lost Jozy pretty early on so we shifted things around. Then we went back to the system that we thought we’d be comfortable in, and then we finished in an entirely different system,” Vanney said this week.

“For me, it’s the details—trying to set a foundation for what we want to do for the year, and really work with our guys just on being better in that, and being better about their recognition of certain situations.”

Moor and Beitashour played major roles in TFC’s defensive turnaround. But the club also made a big upgrade at the goalkeeping position last season when it replaced starter Joe Bendik, who was traded to Orlando City, with Clint Irwin.

Acquired in a trade with Colorado, Irwin proved to be an astute pickup, as he recorded six clean sheets in 19 appearances, and he looked quite comfortable in meshing with TFC’s new-look back line.

Irwin isn’t surprised that Vanney will continue to stress this season the same defensive principles that he preached last year.

“I think everyone is aware that defensive strength is something that propelled us throughout the season last year, and in the playoffs it’s key. You see that the teams that are able to keep the clean sheet have the best chance to go far,” Irwin said.

“For us, that needs to be our calling card again.”

NOTES: Toronto FC leaves for California on Saturday where they’ll hold a 10-day training camp. The team will then return to Toronto for a week before heading to Orlando from Feb. 13-25… Bradley and Altidore are expected to join TFC after the team returns from California… The Reds open the regular season on March 4 away to Real Salt Lake. TFC then takes on the Philadelphia Union (March 11) and Vancouver Whitecaps (March 18) before hosting Sporting Kansas City on March 31 in their home opener.

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