Toronto FC spent big this offseason, and no matter how far out of their way the powers that be up there went to temper expectations, the idea is always this: If you spend big, you should win big.
Here's what I wrote in our Toronto season preview, way back in February:
Right now, TFC's roster is pretty top-heavy (duh). There's no clear No. 1 partner for Bradley in central midfield; there's definitely no natural replacement should 33-year-old central defender Steven Caldwell start showing his age; and Bright Dike's latest injury means there's no proven target forward on the roster. The big names are going to have to carry a lot of weight while the rest of the squad sorts itself out.
Six months (and counting) later, they're no closer to an answer for any of the above:
1. Can't Sort Out the Central Midfield
This is an area of concern going back all the way to MatchDay 1, when Jonathan Osorio lined up next to Michael Bradley. Of late it's been Collen Warner in that spot, and while there have been some good outings - the 3-2 win over Columbus a few weeks back is the best of them - these two guys just haven't quite been on the same page.
Ryan Nelsen has Bradley and Warner both playing box-to-box, a "double pivot" in the game's vernacular. That means they take turns being the deep man shielding the backline, and both take turns pushing into the attack, and both take turns doing pretty much everything. The idea is that one will always be in position to cover for the other, so that no part of the midfield third will ever go without protection.
As often as not, though, the double pivot causes the exact problem it's supposed to solve: the gap in front of the backline.
It also means that, defensively, they rarely work in tandem:
This is bad from Bradley. Against a player as skilled with the ball as Kelyn Rowe, and one who is deadly from distance (he led the league in goals from outside the 18 last year), the right move is to contain, not challenge.
But... a different system would give Bradley - who's always been a super-aggressive defender - cover in that spot. Davy Arnaud does the same thing for D.C. United, and Perry Kitchen has his back. Tony Tchani has Wil Trapp covering him. And, of course, Gershon Koffie has Matias Laba offering protection.
Warner's responsibilities need to become more specific and circumscribed. TFC's getting murdered in Zone 14, and while individual errors are a part of that, the root cause is a systemic mess.
2. Who's Conducting the Back Line?
Caldwell has been in and out of the lineup over the last few months thanks to injury concerns, and TFC's suffering without his leadership and organizational skills. Doneil Henry and Nick Hagglund are too young, while Bradley Orr is a natural fullback trying to fill in centrally.
For the kids - Henry & Hagglund - that often means hyper-aggressive and often effective individual defense, but struggles with shape, rotations and compactness. Just as in the midfield, TFC don't defend as a team.
With Orr, it usually means good distribution (Rowe's goal, which came off an Orr turnover, is an exception), but slow recognition.
Orr is the one who simply gives up on the play. He's not a lazy player out there, so I'm not going to call this an effort failure, but simply a failure to recognize just what kind of a look the up-the-gut runs from New England were about to create.
If Caldwell's in there, I still think this is a goal. But it's not a tap-in.
3. A One-Man Solution
Think TFC would be well-served to switch back to a 4-4-2, with Osorio wide and Moore playing with Gilberto. This hasn't worked.— Kurtis Larson (@KurtLarSUN) August 30, 2014
Eventually TFC did switch back to their standard set-up, but the damage had already been done defensively:
In attack, the problems were just as obvious. Gilberto does a lot of good things - his movement is good, his pressing is relentless and he's very clever in transition. He's not, however, a guy you can play up top as a lone forward if you intend to carry the game. Even in a 4-3-3 with high and tight wingers, it'd be a stretch.
Dike, who is more of a target, is better suited for that role. Unfortunately for TFC, he's also far from full fitness, as he's still working his way back into shape after popping his Achilles' in training camp.
Toronto, of course, still have as good a shot as any of the chasing group in the East - TFC, New England, Columbus, New York and Philly - at claiming a playoff spot. Not a single on of those teams is without flaws, and a couple of easy adjustments could make the Reds a lot tougher to beat.
But the clock's ticking, and if this group doesn't make the postseason, it'll be a bloody big deal.