Toronto Preview: Running Through the Six

A conversation with Kieran Doyle, Assistant Coach and Data Analyst, Women’s Soccer, University of Toronto.

Dummy Run: Kudos to the club you follow, Toronto FC, which took its sweet time but eventually found the firehose and blew away D.C. United in extra time, 5-1, to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals. They’ll face NYCFC in Queens on Wednesday night.

This was not unexpected! Nobody in the league had a stronger homestretch than Toronto, who clawed their way up from the playoff line to a four seed by closing out the regular season on a 10-game unbeaten streak, matched by a sharp upswing in their underlying numbers. (Although as Kevin Minkus at American Soccer Analysis pointed out, the contrast with their summer low probably had something to do with losing key players to international tournaments.)

This viz is stolen directly from ASA’s Toronto playoff preview, which you should read.

So maybe a good place for us to start is: how did TFC turn it around? Has Greg Vanney finally fixed whatever’s been ailing this team ever since their 2017 MLS Cup title gave way to a year and a half of mediocrity? Just how nervous should NYCFC fans be about catching this team in the playoffs?

Kieran Doyle: I guess the best answer so far is that they probably haven’t turned it around … yet. Omar Gonzalez made a big difference to this team, as well as Marky Delgado picking up a lot of midfield slack to let Pozuelo be a little bit more free. Richie Laryea has also become the second coming of Dani Alves, but Toronto as a whole is still not as convincing as they could be.

Like you said, TFC didn’t sail smoothly in last weekend’s quarterfinal against D.C. until extra time. The xG was pretty even during regular time, but Quentin Westberg made some huge saves and Bill Hamid didn’t exactly cover himself in glory.

In terms of how nervous NYCFC should be, I’d say the answer is very. TFC has historically been excellent at Yankee Stadium, and even though they’ve been very up and down this year, their up is one of the top three teams in the league. From a Toronto perspective, how much trouble is Michael Bradley in if he’s sitting on his own?

Dummy Run: Yeah, there’s been a lot of talk about how TFC is a uniquely tough matchup for NYCFC, by which I assume people mean they’re uniquely good at playing this team during weeks when Jesús Medina and Ben Sweat are in the starting lineup and Maxi Moralez and Héber are not (twice this year!). But it’s also true that Toronto’s lineup when these teams met in the Bronx last month looked pretty different from the one they played against D.C. in the first round, so I’m reluctant to suggest the regular season can tell us much of anything about what to expect Wednesday night.

There’s no doubt that Vanney’s team has both the payroll and the talent to be one of the best in the league on a good day (and NYCFC had the misfortune to catch them on a very good day for that 4-0 spanking back in March). What we know will carry over from the September pass network above is that Alejandro Pozuelo’s wallet will continue to be the one that says Bad Motherfucker on it and Michael Bradley will be his trusty Vince. The Outfield’s Kevin Nelson suggested in last week’s playoff preview that Dome’s best bet might be to cut off Toronto’s offense at the base by manmarking Bradley out of the game, and given how easy the Canadian National Team made that look last week (in Toronto, no less) I’m inclined to agree.

Problem is, sitting back and shadowing the opponent’s six isn’t NYCFC’s style. They’re one of the league’s most aggressive pressing teams by any metric, which means that when the forwards jump a press trigger it falls on the midfielders to step up a line. And Keaton Parks, for all his sexy sangfroid on the ball, is not the guy whose tackling ability you want to pin your playoff hopes on.

On the other hand, with Maxi back in the squad NYCFC should look like a different team in possession, and defense isn’t exactly Toronto’s forte: they were shockingly easy to pass through this season and middle of the pack for goals allowed. They are—no offense—a little Berhalterish in their insistence that it’s possible to play possession soccer without an aggressive press to back it up. Why does Vanney prefer to defend that way? If you were tasked with breaking down this team’s defensive block, as the, uh, hosts will probably spend most of their time doing at Citi Field, where would you probe for weak spots?

Kieran Doyle: I think Vanney’s defensive choices come down to personnel up front. When you’re looking at a striker group of Jozy Altidore, Jordan Hamilton (before he left for Columbus), and now Patrick Mullins, you aren’t going to see a whole tonne [This is too cute to convert to house style. —Ed.] of pressing from the front. While all of those guys do a great job of getting shots in good areas (an area of particular focus this year thanks to the analytics department), they’re extreme minus defenders. Combine that with Bradley’s waning mobility and it becomes very difficult to press at all.

But Jozy Altidore is half-fit at best heading into Wednesday night, and TFC’s attack was on point with Pozuelo floating freely as a striker against D.C. Putting Pozuelo up top gives you a lot more mobility, and Delgado and Jonathan Osorio reverted to the shuttling roles they played in 2017, when TFC’s press was significantly more dynamic. Add in TAM winger Nicolas Benezet and Tsubasa Endoh as ultra-mobile wide attacking midfielders and you get whatever that D.C. match was. TFC were much more active defensively in the opposition half than normal, but you still saw moments when the press was broken and Bradley was forced to gamble.

Herein lies the hope for NYCFC: while they may not be a particularly transition-y team, if they can play deep and draw Osorio and Delgado too far forward, it becomes really attractive to catch TFC off balance through your wingers. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Dome is Pep Lite, but that’s something Guardiola’s teams have always been devilishly good at. Bait the overcommitment in the press and all of a sudden it’s Messi-Pedro-Henry or Ribery-Lewandowski-Robben or Sane-Agüero-Sterling running three-on-two with no defensive midfielder in sight.

My guess is Toronto will line up the same way, maybe with Gonzalez or Laryea returning for Laurent Ciman and Auro respectively. But Vanney is no stranger to tactical curve balls, especially for knockout matches. Don’t be shocked if they swap to a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 to match up with the NYCFC wingers straight up (which scares the life out of me).

Dummy Run: They wouldn’t be the first opponent to switch to three at the back to mirror NYCFC’s shape (and they’ve certainly got more experience with it than, say, the Galaxy did). But I think Dome’s actually more Guardiolaish than Guardiola when it comes to those fast breaks you just described: his team loves a slow juego de posición buildup but goes direct once they cross the halfway line. The idea is you still control the ball and the tempo and get to pick your moments, but you arrive rapidly enough to catch the opponent’s defense off balance.

NYCFC plays slow, then fast.

Or maybe it’s simpler than that: playing most of the season without wide wingers has basically forced NYCFC to play quickly in the attacking half, since they don’t have that safe outlet on the touchline that can buy the attack time to move forward as a unit. However they arrived at the style, it’s been effective, and it’ll be particularly dangerous if Alexandru Mitriţă can carry his recent form into the playoffs.

A lot of what I just said assumes that NYCFC will play the three-back system that saw them through some of their best stretches this season, but the truth is that with James Sands still working his way back to full fitness it’s possible Dome will decide to roll with the 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-2-2 he preferred toward the end of the regular season, sacrificing that third-CB anchor to get more of his talented attackers on the field at once.

Sounds like the big takeaway here is that it’s hard to know what to expect from either coach. So here’s my closing question for you: What does Toronto’s absolute best-case scenario look like for how this game might play out, and what’s the competing timeline where NYCFC just totally steamrolls them?

Kieran Doyle: I think the worst case is TFC rolls out a throwback performance from those mediocre 18 months and gets evaporated by a very good NYCFC team. Something like Ciman, Drew Moor and Eriq Zavaleta in a back three; USMNT Michael Bradley instead of MLS Michael Bradley; slow, plodding possession for Toronto; and transition after transition for NYCFC. In other words, a reverse of the 5-0 game at Yankee Stadium a few years back. (Conversely if Osorio and Delgado don’t cover the kind of ground they have recently to snuff out transitions, we could see Mitri running one-on-one against Ciman like a re-run of the Omar Browne debacle.)

If TFC come out and really zip the ball about and play with the tempo they have in the past 11 matches, it’s hard to see how they don’t advance. The best case looks something like lots of broken NYCFC presses and Pozuelo and company getting a free run at Sean Johnson through a scrambling back line, especially if Keaton Parks and Alex Ring are off their game.

Ultimately I think a lot of how this game will go comes down to who’s crisper in possession. If Toronto is slow, predictable, and negative, we’re in trouble. But if Bradley is breaking lines and stretching the field, it will become very difficult for NYCFC to find their rhythm on the ball. For New York City, if they can draw Toronto out then break quickly, game over. If they’re off their best and Marky Delgado gets to run around and kick people high up the field, they’re going to have a bad time.

Stylistically, I think this will be the most fun playoff match of the round. Two teams who do similar things in possession, who are absolutely going to punch each other in the mouth. All the best! ❧

Image: Roman, Red Jasper Ring Stone (Serpent Carries Off the Child Opheltes)