MLS Little Things: Playing Out Of The Press & Disorganized Toronto

We look back at the most interesting parts of MLS Week 11, including Toronto FC, the Columbus Crew, and LAFC.

Toronto FC are a bit disorganized

TFC have spent much of this season as the “games in hand” team. Heading into the week, they sat fourth in the East on points but first on points-per-game, with an even 16 points from eight games. Now, they’ve dropped to sixth overall and lost the points-per-game lead after losing on Wednesday and Saturday. They’ve lost four of their past six games.

Part of the blame for the losses can be attributed to Jozy Altidore’s injury, which he suffered late in a wacky 4-3 win over Minnesota on April 19. The attack flounders without Altidore’s influence, particularly when Jordan Hamilton starts up top over Ayo Akinola, who missed Saturday’s game after a call-up to the U.S. U-20 World Cup roster. Hamilton struggles with the ball at his feet and tends to disappear for stretches of games.

The defense, though, is the biggest culprit for Toronto’s disappointing stretch. TFC lack the personnel and setup at the back to contend for real in the Eastern Conference, and injuries to Laurent Ciman and Auro in Saturday’s loss to the Union will not help.

It was relatively surprising to see the transfer deadline pass without a significant change to the backline. General manager Ali Curtis said on the TSN broadcast Saturday that the club had two players it had wanted to sign at the deadline, and it is common knowledge that TFC likely would have signed center back Omar Gonzalez had Mexican club Atlas not deferred at the last minute and decided to keep him.

Toronto concede too many goals and lack the flawless structure they once had in midfield. Considering their epic collapse last season, these are not new concerns. Watching teams play through and around the midfield and then beat a slow backline to the punch feels like a broken record at this point.

The clip above does not show everything that happened before the goal. Eriq Zavaleta had stepped to the ball on the flank only to see a Union player run into space behind, with no one ready to make that crucial rotation. Ideally, Zavaleta would have dropped back and let Marky Delgado or Auro step to the ball. These are fairly simple mistakes. TFC used to thrive on well-timed, smart midfield rotations. They don’t anymore, and the weak backline has been exposed because of it.

Flaws are sometimes more subtle than the above:

That was midweek, when TFC lost on the road to Atlanta. Young Liam Fraser, who was solid overall, missed the above rotation, allowing Darlington Nagbe to find space and slip a pass through. These little mistakes can lose teams games. 

This has been going on for a year or more. TFC don’t seem like they’re going to clean this up anytime soon. Toronto fans, take solace in your fun attack and Kawhi Leonard. 

Russell Canouse, doing the Little Things

Watch Canouse on this transition sequence:

That is very smart. Canouse realizes that he is, for the moment, outnumbered in space, with Felipe Gutierrez sprinting forward on the ball and Daniel Salloi making a fierce run ahead of him. In that moment, many players would have raged to the ball, hoping to cut the sequence out early and potentially create an immediate opportunity for D.C. United. But Canouse shows restraint — he knows Junior Moreno is trailing Gutierrez and that the more immediate threat is Salloi’s run.

So, Canouse mystifies Salloi by turning and running with him. Moreno approaches Gutierrez from behind and forces an immediate decision. Suddenly without options, Gutierrez lofts a hopeful ball that drifts harmlessly to Bill Hamid. 

Had Canouse stepped to the ball, Gutierrez would have released Salloi and Sporting would have had a threatening counter. Canouse prevents that with savvy spacial awareness.

Playing out of the press

I wouldn’t call LAFC an outright pressing team. They have fast attackers who buzz at the top of the formation, but LA doesn’t use the all-out, swarming press that defines other familiar systems. 

That doesn’t make it any less difficult to play against, as the Columbus Crew found out on Saturday. Many of LA’s chances on goal come from coordinated triggers, especially early in games, and the mobile midfield of Latif Blessing, Mark-Anthony Kaye, and Eduard Atuesta fills every gap as the front three swirls. Once they get the ball, they attack defenders with ferocity on the ball and feast on jumbled backlines. 

In a closer-than-the-score-indicated 3-0 win in Columbus, LA’s defensive shape suffocated the Crew to the point that the hosts struggled to break any midfield lines or put the ball on the feet of their attackers. The Crew, lacking much of anything in attack, had been able to competently build from the back even during their ongoing cold stretch. LA erased their ability to keep meaningful possession and forced Columbus to go direct to the flanks, which they couldn’t do.

Injuries to their top three fullbacks (forcing center back Josh Williams to play right back) hurt Columbus. Although things improved marginally in the second half when Federico Higuain and new winger David Accam came off the bench, that was primarily due to the game state, which was 1-0 LA. 

Columbus have to find a way to break out more effectively. That could mean seeking out more switches, involving Gyasi Zardes in possession, or placing more build-up responsibility on the center backs to take some pressure off Wil Trapp. 

Their primary problem remains their struggle to generate anything in attack. They can’t afford to falter even more when opposing teams take away build-up options.

FC Cincinnati, looking a little bit better

I was a tiny bit skeptical of FCC’s decision to fire manager Alan Koch so early in the season. Koch was competent enough to set Cincy up an organized block and give them a chance to win games. His flaws (constant tinkering, playing players out of position for no reason, an inability to produce any sort of offense) were obvious and destructive, but fixable. 

Perhaps there is something be said for a quick trigger. Twenty-nine-year-old interim coach Yoann Damet, who has no significant playing experience and went to college to be a soccer coach, let FCC keep the ball and they produced a 2-1 win at Montreal, an impressive win against a third-place team. Damet played everyone in their correct position — what a concept — and instituted a new, more aggressive possession ideology. 

You don’t have to be Manchester City to play some good, effective possession soccer. Both of Cincy’s goals came from long passing sequences. That is a positive sign, although the new manager bump is a very real thing. We’ll see if this is sustainable.

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