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Sunday 25 March 2012

Upon First Glance – Toronto FC v San Jose Earthquakes

    Yesterday was Toronto FC’s home opener, an unsatisfactory 0-3 loss to San Jose. Disappointing yes, but was it that bad? Could it have been worse?

Here are a few thoughts:

On the starting elevens – It was a bit of a surprise to see Moreno get the start for San Jose, but not too shocking as his ability to possess and distribute served them well in the final half hour against Houston, as it did in Toronto. Winter must have had one eye on Wednesday night in his decision to not start Koevermans.

On the import of the first goal
– It was a killer. Lenhart’s offside goal in the 4th minute was a warning – nice first-time ball from Moreno over the top of the defense. Their 9th minute goal – Cronin from the edge of the area wonderful ball clipped to the back-post.

    The two central defenders – Harden & Aceval – tried to squeeze up; unaware of how deep their fellow defenders had dropped, leaving several players – Lenhart and Wondolowski, the goal-scorer, most notably - completely unmarked and unchallenged for the header. A bit of chaos at the back from the second phase of a corner; poor organization proved costly.

On Toronto’s approach – The team looked shaken. It could have been the losses of Frings and Frei – two of the club’s leaders – out with long term injuries, perhaps the weather – nasty and cold – played some role in the dour performance, could be the looming pressures of the tie with Santos Laguna has their focus occupied.

On Terry Dunfield – He was very impressive in the midfield today. Dunfield is rarely going to be the flashy attacking weapon – his goal against Ecuador was more an aberration that an indication – but his work-rate on a night such as this was excellent.

    He was everywhere, sticking a foot in, winning balls, making himself available as an outlet all the time; generally giving his all.

On Reggie Lambe – He is growing into his role. He looked quick and lively, stronger on the ball and hungrier to work to win and maintain possession; managed to carve out a few decent chances for himself.
    In his first few appearances through preseason he looked meek and a little unfit; against San Jose he was a different player.

On the second San Jose goal – It was a sucker-punch; deflated Toronto and the crowd. Beitashour breaks nearly the length of the pitch unmolested, draws in the covering defenders, laying a ball between them for the streaking Chavez down the right.

    The Honduran plays a cross to no particular target – it was in fact between Wondolowski and Moreno, but fortunately for him Salinas was following up - there was very little recovery effort from TFC players to get back into position - for a calm strike into the net.

And the third – A great Cronin ball over the defense to pick out an excellent run from Baca. A square-ball it across for Wondolowski, who had plenty of time to recover from a poor first touch and stroke his second goal of the night.

On Three-nil? Really? – The score-line was in no way indicative of either the run of play or of Toronto’s quality. They were moving the ball well, had the right ideas, but were too slow to execute and lacking a focus for the attack.

    TFC really pressed to start the second and were not without their chances. Busch was erratic as predicted, a poor punched clearance fell to Silva early in the match for a solid chance which he volley over the bar. Johnson missed a gilt-edged chance, just taking his eye off a Koevermans cross following some hard work by the big Dutchman.

A fourth? – TFC was undone on two good passes and two good runs: Cronin’s cross for the first; Beitashour’s run for the second; the third – a great run from Chavez and a clever ball from Cronin. But it could have been worse.

    Lenhart’s deflected effort was pushed over the bar by Kocic and Wondolowski almost struck for another hat-trick, smacking a low shot against the base of the post with the net gaping – leaving him with only two on the night, for six in his last three visits.

On Ryan Johnson as the attacking spearhead – Johnson has been fantastic this season, but he functions better drifting out to the right and cutting in, adding to the attack, rather than being the focal point of it.

On Winter’s choices – It was a mistake to not start Koevermans, without that central focus all the penetration in the wide areas was useless with nobody banging around in the box. There were never any TFC players in the box when an attacker looked up to pick out a target. Neither Plata nor Lambe were going to win many headers against Bernardez and Co..

    Did he have one eye on Wednesday night?

On Yallop’s ploy – San Jose played a perfect road match - grab an early goal, bunker down and hit on the counter. Wasting time seconds after scoring that first goal, taking the ball to the corner flag after sixty minutes of play – Petrescu at first was willing to hand out bookings, even adding three minutes to the first half, but then seemed to put the cards away once the match crept out of Toronto’s reach.

On Sam Cronin – Cronin was all over the pitch today. His exceptional passing tallied two assists, and he displayed some fine defensive work. Why is he no longer a Red again?

On the action in the stands – The crowd itself was a bit sedated – could be the nasty cold weather, could be the early kickoff, could be the comedown from the LA results, could be the shadow of Champions League - without the accoutrements of Frings and Frei - hanging heavy in the distance.

    At times I fear the organization has mistaken fair-weather fans for those of the more hardcore variety. The number of times an inopportune start time and a touch of inclement weather has affected the number of actual bodies in the house is a bit of a concern.

    More likely than not those tickets have been sold and are simply not used. Perhaps the club could do more to get those unused purchases into the hands of those that would appreciate them, rather than revel in those plastic fans and empty seats.

On Toronto’s delivery – Set piece delivery was atrocious today. As was Kocic’s kicking, may have been the swirling winds, may have been the image of Frei going down, more likely it had something to do with the poor balls that were being played back to him and the wet weather – perhaps they were to his wrong foot, which could at least excuse the live balls, if not the dead ones - but either way it was horrid.

Questions – How annoying were those San Jose goal celebrations? And Lenhart? How he would be loved if he wore red…

Match in an Image – Plata trying to battle with Bernardez was emblematic of the issues today.

On a personal note – Truth be told, I did not really want TFC to move onto the next round of the Champions League. A solid opening win – send the masses home happy - then a graceful bow out to Los Angeles would have set up the team and the city for a successful campaign.

    The first few months of the schedule are hard on TFC, most games are at home for the next stretch; it is an important time to build confidence and tally some points; not a time for dropped results and extra matches that could prove an obstacle to success later in the year.

    That’s not to say that the win in LA wasn’t a great occasion, I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I don’t know that it was the best thing for the long-term plans.

    This isn’t a deep team; it’s still not a cohesive team. There are changes still to be made and the Champions League – especially these late rounds – are for teams more prepared to fight on multiple fronts.

    Is this a distraction that the club could do better without? Would the fans be willing to sacrifice another playoff-less season, and a loss in the Voyageur’s Cup to make the final? To win it?

    Depends what one wants I suppose… making the quarterfinals was a good showing, dealing with the semis may be a step too far… for now.

Final thoughts – It feels like I said this very thing last week: Matches against Western Conference opponents matter much less than those against in-conference rivals. While it is disappointing that they dropped very winnable points at home, it is the price that must be paid for regional success on the grand scale.

    Where is that line? How many points can be dropped while the Champions League glory swirls around in the mind’s eye? It’s always said that these early matches don’t matter, which given the playoff system of just reach the line in the top ten, is partially true. Points are points. Can these early stumbles be recovered?

    I still think the match against the Crew should be rescheduled to give TFC the best chance possible against a midseason opponent, but it appears unlikely such concessions will be made until the next round.

    It’s going to be an interesting two weeks for Toronto FC and their fans, let’s hope these past two results are not indicative of what awaits.


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