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Thursday 15 September 2011

Upon First Glance – CCL Edition: UNAM Pumas v Toronto FC

    Rather than share notes on such a depressing experience, this seemed an opportune moment to bust out the tactics hat and compare this woeful result with Toronto FC's successful trip down to Mexico a mere year plus a week ago as they drew 0-0 with Cruz Azul.

    Aron Winter’s 2011 TFC - without several key and regular players - setup in an untried 4-2-3-1, which seemed sensible enough.  The role of Koevermans was the potential weakness as the middle man in the 3 was going to have to cover a lot of ground; it could be reasoned that the hope was Koevermans’ ability to hold up play and distribute would draw in defenders and make space for the wide men – Soolsma and Borman – as well as Johnson – the lone man up top – to run into. Though Avila would have made a much better applicant for that role; his more spritely legs and that certain tenacity in the midfield that Koevermans has not yet shown.

    Nick Dasovic’s 2010 TFC setup in a flat 4-4-2, at least until injuries to both Nane and Šarić in the centre of midfield required the fielding of De Rosario, with Lindsay and Peterson in the wide roles. Those two sitters in the midfield formed a protective base for the backline, much like Frings and de Guzman were intended too, while the wide men provided protection across the pitch. The pair of strikers – Ibrahim and White – played an extremely disciplined match, seldom making deep forays into the opposition’s half, instead maintaining the shape of the formation and harrying the Cruz Azul ball holders high up the pitch, while the wide midfielders were very careful to track back and help out when needed.

    TFC 2011 were able to create a few good chances, mostly through the efforts of Johnson, who appears to relish these CONCACAF trips, but rarely connected passes or held possession in the Pumas half. They did however often find themselves stuck deep in Pumas’ half, unable to help out defensively to seal up the attacking channels.

    TFC 2010 relieved the constant pressure with the youthful exuberance of Lindsay making the occasional penetrating run down the left, while the rest of the team, even De Rosario, played a very conservative game more concerned with plugging than surging forward. At the hour mark Gargan came in for Lindsay, taking up De Rosario’s midfield role, moving Ibrahim to Lindsay’s spot on the left, freeing up De Ro to move up top. The idea remained the same; Ibrahim put in his best shift in a TFC shirt, as did Peterson, Garcia, and Hščanovičs.

    Defensively is where the two sides differed most drastically.

    Aside from a spirited performance from Cann, putting out fires left and right, one of his best, TFC 2010 kept the playing area compact while intelligently dropping off when necessary to always keep the Mexican attackers in front of them, well aware that the lack of pace amongst Garcia, Cann, Harden, and Hščanovičs would burn them if they were cut open.

    TFC 2011 fell victim to this numerous times. The calm professionalism of 2010 was replaced with a frantic desperation in 2011.

    Without throwing any particular players under the bus – the whole 2011 team was woeful – there were two main differences between 2010 and 2011 that were instrumental to the success and failure of their respective trips.

    2010 had experienced heads at right back and goalkeeper – Garcia and Conway – while 2011 had an out of position Henry and a relatively untested Kocić in those positions. Iro was rightly removed before half time, as he was having a difficult night, but it was not made any easier by Henry not providing cover and Harden looking much slower than the year before.

    It cannot be over emphasized how important an older head can be in these difficult matches, barking orders, organizing the defending with a good view on the shape of the attack. Kocić was not at fault for any of the goals allowed; in fact without a few brilliant saves the embarrassment could have been much worse.    

    Early goals in difficult situations, can lay the best made plans to rest and had the two experiences reversed – giving up an early goal in 2010, and making in to the half scoreless in 2011 – the results could very well have turned as well.

    A long trip, into the heat, altitude and smog of Mexico City off the back of a quick turnaround from an emotional win to visit a team in need of some confidence having struggled in both league and CONCACAF play was always going to be a difficult proposition.

    Winter and de Klerk should have learned a lot of lessons about how to setup and play their team against the difficult Mexican sides on the road, perhaps it would have served them well to study the club’s trip the year before ahead of time.

    They were done no favours by their Mexican hosts, who having fielded reserve sides in their first two matches, decided it was time to bring out the first team.

    On a lighter note; Pumas keeper’s first name is Odin, which is awesome and at least Toronto did not get screwed by any referring decisions this time. Plus as a bonus the UNAM Pumas horn section was much easier to listen to than the Cruz Azul fog horn was the previous year.

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