No Sebastian Giovinco. No Jozy Altidore. So what will Toronto FC do?
The Independent Panel’s ruling last week to uphold Altidore’s red-card suspension confirmed that TFC will be shorn of both first-choice strikers for Tuesday’s first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship vs. Columbus Crew SC at MAPFRE Stadium, both via suspension.
It’s hardly an optimal tactical question heading into a potential ambush against a driven, motivated opponent with a sellout home crowd baying them on.
Let’s take a look at coach Greg Vanney’s options up top for this pivotal road test.
3-5-1-1: The leading contender
No one in MLS would be expected to have like-for-like replacements for two Designated Players who are among the very best in the league at their roles. So much of the pregame analysis has pointed to Toronto making no attempt to do so and instead tweaking their usual 3-5-2 system to maximize the attributes of the most talented players available as they seek a positive result to take back to BMO Field.
That involves supersub Tosaint Ricketts, a 2016 postseason hero who’d be an everyday starter on many MLS teams, as a lone striker with cultured Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez drifting behind him.
This would leave intact most of the Reds’ familiar roles elsewhere, with wingbacks Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour (or perhaps Nicolas Hasler) providing incision from wide areas and skipper Michael Bradley provided ample engine-room support in a central mid trio likely to feature two from Marky Delgado, Jonathan Osorio or Armando Cooper.
Few reserves embody TFC’s vaunted depth more than Ricketts, who has made no shortage of sacrifices on his winding road to this momentous point in his career, as the Toronto Sun compellingly detailed this week. Need we mention that he scored twice against Crew SC earlier this season, a man-of-the-match cameo in a 2-1 Reds comeback win at MAPFRE?
“He recognizes there’s a real opportunity to make a difference in front of him,” Vanney told the Sun. “I’d imagine Tos is looking forward to it and champing at the bit to go out there and make a difference and show his value.”
4-4-2: Thinking out of the box
Of course, all the talk of Ricketts and Vazquez may be a smokescreen behind which Vanney is preparing something else – perhaps a pragmatic bank of four to grind up Crew SC’s possession plans and turn this into a dour, low-scoring affair.
The Reds have shifted into a 4-4-2 on several occasions this year, typically when defending a lead or salting away a result in the latter stages of games. One of the wingbacks drops into a more conventional fullback slot and the other becomes a wide mid or is subbed off for a midfielder.
If Vanney wants the compactness of a diamond midfield, Bradley sits at its base while the likes of Vazquez, Delgado, Osorio, Cooper and Benoit Cheyrou are just a few of the many versatile options on TFC’s stacked roster who can man the shuttling and attacking roles. More expansive options with wide mids are available, too, as well as 4-1-4-1-ish looks.
But if Vazquez features in midfield, one of TFC’s greener, younger forwards would have to be called upon. Ben Spencer and Raheem Edwards earned a handful of minutes down the stretch this season, and there’s also HomegrownJordan Hamilton. But none have played a minute of playoff soccer in their careers to date.
Given the tactical tenor of this postseason to date, and the real risk of getting overrun by Columbus’ yellow swarm, it’s not hard to imagine Vanney being drawn to the familiar, better-safe-than-sorry comfort of four in the back, whether from the start or late in the game.
But two up top? That looks like a nerve-jangling gamble indeed. Toronto’s enduring strength is their midfield; I expect it to be featured on Tuesday.