The biggest thing we can surmise from Toronto FC’s 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday is that both teams are taking Saturday’s Nutrilite Canadian Championship final seriously. We can surmise that because both Aron Winter and Tom Soehn fielded lineups that were more or less “B” teams, resting key contributors on both sides of the ball.
The reaction of the players was another hint. The verve and gusto that characterized these teams’ First Kick weekend matchup at Empire Field was nowhere to be found. With the exception of teenagers Joao Plata and Russell Teibert, who were energetic and frenetic throughout their shifts, conservative, cautious play was the story of the day. Neither side tipped their hand, neither side committed fully to the midweek fight.
Which is the long way of saying that the slate was left clean for Saturday afternoon.
TORONTO’S PROBABLE TACTICS
While nothing new was learned about TFC on Wednesday, there are plenty of data points to go on from throughout the year.
First and foremost, TFC will come out in Aron Winter’s Dutch 4-3-3. The goal of the 4-3-3 is to get skilled wingers isolated on the flanks, giving them the opportunity to cut inside with the ball and either have a shot for themselves, set up a teammate cutting into the box, or find an overlapping fullback in space.
The two Toronto fullbacks will probably be Danleigh Borman (left) and Richard Eckersley (right). Both are more adapt going forward than they are in defense, which isn’t a knock since both push up very, very well. Borman has gone from a utility player in New York to a true, modern left back in Toronto. He’s an able crosser, has very good attacking instincts and is learning to go “safety first” when on his back foot.
Eckersley can be a bit more haphazard in his approach, but generally provides value on both sides of the ball.
The problem for TFC has been through the middle of the field. At no point this year have they settled upon a consistent central defensive duo, and a spate of injuries to their central midfielders has undone any chance at cohesion. Add in Alan Gordon’s lack of health — the big center forward has made a world of difference the few times he’s been healthy for the Reds — and the spine of the team has been in constant flux.
But Saturday might be a glimpse at something approaching Winter’s ideal lineup.
Julian de Guzman is probable, which means Toronto will have a true back-point at the base of the midfield three. De Guzman has suffered his fair share of slings and arrows since coming to MLS, but he’s rarely had a chance to play his best spot for the Reds, and almost never done so surrounded by pieces that fit and understand their roles.
If Tony Tchani and Nathan Sturgis are both healthy, then de Guzman will have that security. De Guzman and Sturgis are both excellent at showing for the ball, and though Tchani sometimes hides, the big man can be a game-breaker if he’s involved.
That threesome should in turn make it easier on the Toronto central pairing, whoever they may be. Most likely, 18-year-old wunderkind Doneil Henry — as potential-laden as any Canadian defender in history — will partner veteran Ty Harden.
Neither is particularly gifted in distribution, which is why the ability of de Guzman and Sturgis to show for the ball is so important. Giving the central defense options and keeping the lines compact will prevent the sort of defensive miscues that have haunted the Reds all year.
VANCOUVER’S PROBABLE TACTICS
The Whitecaps are still in a transitional period under new head coach Tom Soehn, who took over for Teitur Thordarson on May 30.
The ‘Caps mostly played a straight-forward 4-4-2 under Thordarson, but have switched to more of a 4-4-1-1 under Soehn. The difference is significant, as the “1” that plays underneath a lone striker can often act as a de facto third central midfielder.
The fact that it’s the extremely gifted playmaker Davide Chiumiento in that role has made the ‘Caps a much more dynamic side since Seohn took over. It’s a better use of Chiumiento’s skills than stranding him on the wing, as he often was under Thordarson.
The problem for Vancouver, though, is that Eric Hassli isn’t really suited to play as a lone striker in that spot. He’s big and strong, yes, and good at holding up the ball. But his are a scorer’s instincts, and only brings his teammates into the play after checking to see if he has a shot available.
Even then he’ll sometimes have a rip. And to his credit, that gusto can pay off in spectacular fashion — as it did against Seattle. But more often it’s lost possession and wingers who aren’t involved in the play. That’s a problem in the 4-4-1-1, where the wingers are needed to get their fair share of goals.
Another concern is the central midfield duo. The ‘Caps are stocked with box-to-box midfielders, guys who can run all day and play both sides of the ball. That’s well and good, but it can frequently mean an exposed central defensive pairing if communication is less than perfect. Given the upheaval in both personnel and tactics, that’s exactly the case several times a game for the ‘Caps.
If Vancouver are going to win on Saturday, they’ll need to address that issue. Telling off one of their central midfielders — whether it’s Terry Dunfield, Gershon Koffie, Jeb Brovsky or whoever may be on the pitch — to sit deeper and protect the back line is the path to eliminating sloppiness and making the game simpler for a defense that’s still getting to know each other.
It’s also a chance to bring the wingers into the game directly rather than waiting to play them off of Hassli. Diagonal distribution to the flanks is the way to turn midfield turnovers into attacks — especially against a team that pushes its fullbacks as high into the offensive third as TFC do.
WHAT IT REALLY COMES DOWN TO
In the end, this game will be about TFC’s ability to stay compact defensively — something they’ve struggled with all year — and get Gordon service into the box.
On Vancouver’s end, it’ll be about protecting the central defensive pairing, which should allow them to concentrate on Gordon and Maicon Santos, while freeing up Chiumiento and the wings to attack at pace.
Whoever wins those battles will most likely win the war, and with it a preliminary spot in the upcoming CONCACAF Champions League.
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @MLS_Analyst.