Is there a higher level that TFC can still reach?
Toronto captain Michael Bradley hinted at it in the locker room after the Columbus game when he told reporters, “The most exciting part for me is I continue to look at our team and feel like we have big room for improvement. I don’t say that in any negative way. We’ve made big progress, but I still see big margin for improvement.”
It’s a pretty scary thought that a club that is now unbeaten in eight MLS games (with seven wins), that improved its league-best record to 8-1-5 (its only loss coming in a 2-1 setback in Columbus on April 15), and put in one of the most dominant performances in franchise history can get better. But there is some truth to what Bradley said.
Toronto really hasn’t had its starting 11 in place for any length of time this season, including Friday’s whipping of the Crew – the Reds were missing top scorers Sebastian Giovinco (quad strain) and Jozy Altidore (suspension). The congested fixture list – with two series of five games within a 16-day period – has also meant coach Greg Vanney has had to heavily rotate this squad and rely a great deal on his bench players.
And yet here we are, with Toronto easily setting the pace early on in the MLS season, firmly establishing itself as the team to beat by quite some distance thanks in large part to its incredibly deep roster. One can’t help but wonder how good TFC would really be if all of their starters were healthy and available for selection.
Does TFC’s defence get enough credit?
Somewhat lost in the hoopla surrounding the Reds’ offensive explosion was that they kept the Crew off the score sheet. TFC posted 10 shutouts in all of 2016 – they’ve already recorded six through the first 14 games of the current campaign.
Columbus’s dangerous attacking trio of Ola Kamara, Federico Higuain and Justin Meram – who have 18 goals between them this season – were completely neutralized by TFC’s three-man back line that was ably abetted by Bradley’s stellar defensive play in midfield. As a result, goalkeeper Alex Bono had a very quiet night, and didn’t even have to make a single save.
“We had some defending to do. They had a lot of possession, but it wasn’t really threatening. I thought we did a good job of keeping them in front of us,” defender Drew Moor said.
Injuries to Moor, Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta – the normal starting three at the back – has forced Vanney to chop and change his defence throughout the season. TFC’s back line has held firm, with newcomers Jason Hernandez and Chris Mavinga, and wingback Justin Morrow filling in when called upon. Toronto has the third-best defensive record in MLS, with only 12 goals against.
TFC has demonstrated that they can break teams down, bagging 18 goals during this unbeaten streak. But they’ve also shown they can keep things pretty tight at the back.
How important has Vazquez become for the Reds?
With three goals and a league-leading eight assists, Victor Vazquez, one of the Reds’ biggest off-season additions, has quickly established himself as one of the best MLS newcomers this year. It’s not just his silky skills in possession, or his ability to deliver a killer pass. The Spaniard’s on-field intelligence is, perhaps, his best attribute.
“I’m a big believer that the game is played in your head before it’s played out for everyone to see, and he’s just two steps ahead of everybody else,” Vanney said after Friday’s game. “He knows how much time he has, he knows where pressure is coming from, he knows where his outs are, he knows where the pass that can hurt [opponents] is. He just knows.”
Toronto FC’s coach has emphasized the need for efficient possession this season, telling his players not to dwell on the ball – take one touch instead of two. He wants quick ball movement, and this is where Vazquez has proven to be invaluable. The Spaniard has been a key figure in TFC’s attempt to keep the ball circulating. Countless times he’s quickly released teammates alone on goal, like he did by delivering a raking pass that sent Tosaint Ricketts on a breakaway that eventually led to the first goal against Columbus.
“He’s not the guy who dribbles around people and is sprinting with the ball. He’s not that guy. But if you want a guy to find space and find the right pass and then deliver the right ball, there isn’t anybody better [in MLS],” Vanney said.