TFC’s strength in depth on full display in win over Sounders

Toronto FC defender Jason Hernandez (No. 12) in action for the Reds. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

• MLS – Toronto FC 1 (Altidore 23’), Seattle Sounders 0

GAME RECAP IN A SENTENCE

Toronto FC earned its fourth consecutive victory – and exacted a small measure of revenge for last year’s MLS Cup final loss – in a marvellous road performance that highlighted the Reds’ depth and grit.

THE BIG STORY

Ch-ch-changes.

Coming off a midweek win over Orlando at BMO Field, and with a visit to Columbus next Wednesday and a home game against Minnesota three days later looming, Toronto coach Greg Vanney wisely decided to rotate his squad and give some key starters the afternoon off on Saturday. Sebastian Giovinco, Victor Vazquez, Steven Beitashour and Eriq Zavaleta didn’t even make the trip to Seattle, while goalkeeper Clint Irwin made his first start since injuring his hamstring on March 31.

There were five lineup changes in all: Irwin for Alex Bono, midfielders Jay Chapman and Benoit Cheyrou, and defender Jason Hernandez made their first starts of the season, and Chris Mavinga was also back in the starting 11, only his second start for the Reds. Vanney also made a tactical switch, going with a 3-4-2-1 formation, featuring Chapman and Marky Delgado pushed up a bit higher than then midfield four and just behind Jozy Altidore, who served as the lone striker.

Unlike TFC, the Sounders were playing on a week’s rest and in front of their home crowd. The Reds had to make the long, cross-country trip to Seattle – not the easiest place for visiting teams to earn a result –and with all of the personnel and tactical changes made by Vanney, it looked from the offset that the Sounders were primed to take three points. Toronto had other ideas, though.

Captain Michael Bradley and Cheyrou teamed together to pressure Seattle’s midfielders early, thus allowing very little off-the-ball penetration by the home side. Cheyrou was also excellent in possession, holding up the ball and acting as a release valve as TFC’s defenders were allowed to reset and not get caught out by Seattle in transition.

Hernandez (playing in the middle), Mavinga (on the left) and Nick Hagglund (on the right) were very organized and worked well in unison, allowing Seattle to get just two shots on target on Irwin. Vazquez has been TFC’s chief midfield creator this season, so Chapman had very big shoes to fill. The young Canadian proved he was more than up to the job, exquisitely pulling the creative strings in attack, and linking up effectively with Altidore.

On paper, and in light of all the circumstances, Toronto FC had no business winning this game. But this was one of the most balanced, mature, thoughtful and composed team efforts from TFC in quite some time – as close to a perfect road performance as you’ll see in MLS. Vanney had previously talked about the importance of giving backup players minutes, and to manage his starters’ playing time. On this afternoon, we received a not-so subtle reminder of the quality of Toronto FC’s depth and its ability to grind out results.

KEY MOMENT

23’ GOAL! Toronto 1-0 Seattle: The home side pressed early and had a goal waived off for offside. That seemed to be a wakeup call for the Reds, who attacked with purpose through Benoit Cheyrou and Jay Chapman. Jozy Altidore picked up the ball on the left flank and burst into the box, playing a quick give-and-go with Chapman. The Canadian’s return pass was perfectly weighted for Altidore, who was hauled down from behind by Sounders defender Roman Torres. Altidore stepped up to the spot and fired a perfect penalty into the corner that goalkeeper Stefan Frei had no chance of stopping.

TALKING POINT

Who starts in goal from here on: Bono or Irwin? Bono did a solid job during Irwin’s month-long injury absence, coming up with some big saves – the one on Cyle Larin on Wednesday is an early contender for save of the year – in backstopping the Reds to important victories. Irwin, though, is the more experienced goalkeeper, and Vanney previously said he expects Irwin to be the No. 1 going forward once he returned. Still, with two games next week, and a busy fixture list in May, don’t be surprised if Vanney rotates between the two. Bono has made things interesting, and the answer to the question as to who is the club’s starter isn’t clear cut at the moment, and could be decided over the course of the next few weeks.

QUICK TAKE

Whisper it, but Jozy Altidore has quietly emerged as TFC’s most important contributor since last summer – even more so than Sebastian Giovinco. The American international was TFC’s best player in the second half of the 2016 regular season and during the team’s run to the MLS Cup final. He has picked up from where he left off last season, as he leads the Reds in scoring this campaign with six goals, and has chipped in with three assists. It’s not just the goals and assists, either. His combination of skill and strength up front, his work rate and his finishing ability has made him THE reference point of TFC’s attack.

STANDOUT STAT

Jozy Altidore has now scored 20 goals and tallied nine assists in 31 matches since returning from a hamstring injury last July.

MAN OF THE MATCH

Jozy Altidore, Toronto: The American international put in another very solid shift, doing the grunt work to earn the penalty decision midway through the first half and then converting from the spot to net the game’s loan goal. He also tested Stefan Frei with a swerving effort later in the half that Frei did very well to tip out of danger. Although isolated at times, Altidore successfully led the line for TFC (without the benefit of Giovinco’s presence) against Seattle, using his strength to hold up the ball and to boss and bully the Sounders’ back line. He ran his socks off in this game; his work ethic can’t be questioned.

The first decade of Toronto FC in the words of the players, coaches, executives and fans who built the franchise.

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