Toronto FC‘s first MLS game of the season had a tide of lows and highs before ending with disappointment. TFC went trailing in just the 12th minute, lost their star man to injury around the half-hour mark, turned the game around in the second half but gave away all three points despite leading in the 89th minute.
Over the last few transfer windows, the club has let go of youngsters to bring in experienced players. TFC’s win-now mentality was evident in their lineup and the average age for players used on the opening day (29.1) was more than any other team in the league as was their starting 11’s average age of 30.7 yrs.
TFC was also one of the three clubs (along with Charlotte & NYCFC) who used only two subs in their first league game. Squad depth is an issue and The Reds will be hoping to bring in at least one more player before the end of the transfer window.
Despite conceding in the 98th minute, the most significant blow of the night was the lower body injury to Lorenzo Insigne in the 34th minute. The Italian’s injury instantly deflated the team- TFC started to lose possession easily and came close to conceding twice in transitions in just a few minutes after losing Insigne. It was the other Italian, Federico Bernardeschi, who gave TFC a fighting chance through his two beautifully struck set pieces.
— Toronto FC (@TorontoFC) February 26, 2023
How It Played Out Tactically (Toronto FC Focus)
DC United lined up in a 4-4-2 shape, defended with a mid-block and their game plan allowed TFC to have possession so they could hurt their opponents on the counter. On the ball, DC United expanded to a 4-2-4 shape with the wide midfielders taking advanced positions, DC mostly played direct using the strength of their two strikers to win the first contact.
Toronto’s 4-3-3 shape also switched to a 4-4-2 off the ball but Toronto showed more intent to press. Jonathan Osorio formed a two-man unit up front with Diomande which worked together to mark DC’s no.6, Canouse and apply pressure on centre backs.
The two wingers marked the opposition full-backs, Mark-Anthony Kaye man marked DC’s other midfielder- Mateusz Klich and Michael Bradley operated as the free central midfielder providing cover and support wherever required, which was often in the right half-space where striker Nigel Robertha dropped to link up play.
Matt Hedges had to mark Robertha closely as the striker dropped often to link play. Bradley was responsible for providing support to Hedges against Robertha, marking Klich when Kaye joined the front line to press and pressure Canouse in situations the no.6 received the ball away from the front unit.
When DC were on the ball, they had a 3v2 advantage in their own half, TFC had a one-man advantage in the midfield and there was a 4v4 in and around TFC’s own third with DC’s wide midfielders and strikers against TFC’s backline.
On the ball, TFC in a 4-3-3 showed versatility and had good spells of possession. They switched between building up through possession and direct balls in the channels behind DC United’s defensive block.
Their possession build-up was intended to stretch the opposition on one side by having a player on the touchline (winger or fullback) receive the ball before switching and exploiting the space on the other side. This play in the 28th minute is an example of TFC’s possession built up.
Petretta receives the ball on the touchline forcing DC’s defensive structure to shift to their right and lays it off to Insigne.
Petretta, Insigne and Osorio form a triangle and use it to exchange quick passes under pressure.
After exchanging passes, Osorio turns and plays it across the field to Richie Laryea.
Laryea attempts a through ball to Bernardeschi to exploit the space generated on DC’s left but the pass is overhit.
When attacking directly, TFC played direct ball in the channels behind DC’s relatively high line. Bradley and Kaye played these balls from drop-deep positions for the wingers and the fullbacks. Bradley often dropped in the space between and around the CBs to get time and space on the ball and that also gave the fullbacks licence to go forward.
Kaye played a direct ball in behind in the left channel with both Akinola and Petretta making runs.
TFC also played more directly after Ayo Akinola replaced Insigne as it suited the 23-year-old’s ability. The penalty which led to TFC’s first goal was created through a similar play.
Bradley initially drops deep to the right backspace and plays a long ball in behind in the right channel for Laryea.
Laryea runs in the box with the ball and draws a foul from DC’s 16 years old defender, Akinmboni.
Another way TFC played the ball in the channels was through their fullbacks. Here is an example of those situations.
Akinola goes infield and makes a run in the channel, Petretta plays the ball in the channel from the wide space. TFC tried these balls multiple times as it suited Akinola’s ability to run in behind and it also led to a good chance in the 45th minute.
With their defensive & pressing structure, TFC was able to stop DC United from creating much with settled possession but it was their inability to defend transitions that cost them. DC scored their first goal and third goal through transitions. This is how TFC conceded the first goal.
Trying to make a possession build-up on the right, Kaye plays a loose pass to Akinmboni and TFC lose possession.
TFC immediately counter press which shifts their whole midfield to the right. Bradley tries to cut the pass to Robertha but fails.
After three quick passes, DC United found Klich who had acres of space to run into, Benteke and Durkin’s positions stopped TFC CB and LB from stepping up.
Klich carries the ball into space before launching a lethal strike to the bottom left corner.
DC’s third goal also came in a transition in which they were able to get past the TFC midfield line easily. In the build-up to the winning goal, Petretta’s ball in behind to Akinola is intercepted. DC again exchanged quick passes before Najar received the ball infield, he went on to carry and pass it to the left side where DC United created an overload.
Najar carried the ball into the space with TFC again opened up in transition.
DC were able to create and exploit a 2v1 overload on the edge of the box before Mohanad Jeahze’s low cross was converted by Ku-DiPietro.
DC’s first and third goals were a result of poor defensive transitions from TFC but it was DC’s second goal that would have reminded TFC fans of their defensive horrors from last season.
There was a 3v2 on the right of TFC’s box in the build-up to DC’s second goal.
Hedges initially hesitates and responded too late to close down Ku-DiPietro and Benteke outmuscles Rosted just outside the 6-yard box.
Benteke scores a free header from close range to make it 2-2.
TFC collapsed in the closing minutes of the game and their defensive problems are still not solved despite adding multiple new players to their defence. However, there were some positives in the way TFC played with the ball and fought back from 1-0 and after Insigne’s injury to lead till the 89th minute.
The pressure is already mounting on Bob Bradley after a disappointing last season and he will be hoping that TFC can avoid a defeat when they travel to Atlanta on Saturday.
Feature Image Credit: Toronto FC
Achyut has been involved in soccer as a writer, analyst and scout. He is a Journalism-Broadcast graduate, pursuing his coaching badges with Ontario Soccer and loves to play footy on the weekends.