Spend big, win big. That's the model that works across most of the globe when it comes to our beautiful game.
It hasn't often been the case in MLS, however. If you figure there are three big titles per year – MLS Cup, Supporters' Shield and US Open Cup – then the weight of history (recent and not) comes down on the side of teams that develop talent rather than import it.
Only two of the last six major titles have been won by big spending teams – last year's Shield (Red Bulls) and the 2012 MLS Cup (LA Galaxy). Sporting KC, D.C. United and San Jose Earthquakes, all of whom land somewhere in the middle to the bottom of the pack in terms of outlay, have shared the other four titles in that timeframe.
Where's that leave Toronto FC? They spent big this offseason, trying to join the ranks of the elite. Two-and-a-half months into the season, even after a nice 2-0 win over the listing Red Bulls, it's clear that the Reds still have much work to do.
Let's take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of TFC's day:
The Good: Getting Defoe into the channels
This was kind of a classic 4-4-2 game from both teams, with the central midfield used primarily to facilitate rather than actually create the attack.
Both teams were missing important pieces, of course – Michael Bradley gone with the US for Toronto, while Tim Cahill is off to work with Australia. Even more important from New York's perspective was the loss of Peguy Luyindula, who's been the difference between a team that can control the tempo and shape of the game and one that has to scrap and scramble for any little bit of purchase.
Scrambling leads to sloppiness, and sloppiness leads to midfield turnovers. Toronto were simply thrilled to be handed chance after chance to spring Jermain Defoe into space. Here's the game's first goal:
But here's the mess leading up to it:
Kosuke Kimura deserves the biggest heap of blame for this one, since it was his incredibly naive pass that put New York in an "oh, crap!" defensive situation. But there's no protection for said situation should it arise, as the Red Bulls are prefectly flat through midfield.
So then the turnover happens, and look at all the space Bradley Orr can attack. You don't have to be Juan Roman Riquelme to put a forward through from this particular spot on the field.
What's good about it is that Toronto are absolutely built to take advantage of these exact situations. Defoe was born in the channels and is obviously an elite finisher by any measure; Orr, meanwhile, joins a long list of Reds midfielders who look plenty adept at hitting those inch-perfect passes.
Orr. Bradley. Jonathan Osorio. Kyle Bekker. Collen Warner can even do it a little bit. If you give up the ball at midfield, TFC will turn it in the other direction and you'd best hope your defender makes a spectacular play to take it off Defoe's foot.
Any team in the league would be happy to have that as Plan A.
The Bad: Lack of production from veteran attackers
Nobody with a brain in their head had any real worries about how well Defoe and Bradley would perform. Say what you want about the narrowing gap between MLS and leagues like the EPL and Serie A, but guys as accomplished as that pair should absolutely be expected to walk into MLS and be amongst the best at their respective positions.
And they have been (when available). The problem is that the other veteran attackers have been ciphers.
Alvaro Rey, the 24-year-old Spanish winger who's now had his half-year to adjust to MLS, has struggled to have any sort of impact on any TFC match. He spends the bulk of his time nailed to the touchline, rarely venturing inside to help combine or fill the hole between the central midfield and strikers. The lack of variation in his game has made him predictable, and that predictability has made him easy to contain:
Rey's been incredibly disappointing, and that fact only adds to the confusion around the Issey Nakajima-Farran-for-Warner trade that went down earlier this week. Issey's not going to make anybody forget Luis Figo, but he's been a damn sight better than Rey. Got to think there's another moving coming.
More worrying is the continued fish-out-of-water display from Gilberto, who joined Bradley and Defoe in the Great TFC DP DrakeFest of Winter '13. He's played more than 600 minutes now – that's 10 hours, folks – and has a single assist to his name. He was so anonymous in this one that Ryan Nelsen pulled him off before the hour mark.
Another game without a goal for Gilberto, but he did a lot of positive things. That said, he's got to find the back of the net. #TFC— John Molinaro (@JohnMolinaro) May 17, 2014
TFC have a bit of leeway now with the addition of Luke Moore, who got the tap-in second late in the game. But there's not a long and happy history of big spending clubs getting that silver unless they get serious production from all three DPs on the roster.
In other words, Gilberto can't just be the master of the little things. He's got to do the big things, too.
The Ugly: What exactly is Plan B?
|NY Red Bulls||54.63|
|Seattle Sounders FC||53.02|
|Real Salt Lake||52.93|
Look, possession is a misunderstood stat. Constantly winning the possession battle can indicate that you're setting out with a good gameplan and executing perfectly, or that you're giving up early goals and then getting counterattacked to death. Or any of a million other things in between.
I worry about teams that constantly get drilled in possession, however. And I don't mean 53-47 or something like that – I mean playing game after game after game at 60-40, which is exactly what Toronto's doing.
Over the past four years, only one team has finished an entire season below 44 percent, and they were terrible. If you guessed "Toronto FC, 2012," then you win the prize.
The problem with such a glaring lack of possession is twofold. First, you put your defense under a ton of pressure to defend the box. This is what the Reds did on Saturday, and were only bailed out by Bradley Wright-Phillips' miss-of-the-season candidate.
Second, you end up becoming over-reliant on those midfield turnovers from the opposition, and become a purely reactive squad. You can't pull them out of position; you have to wait til they run themselves out of position, then hope you get the turnover that can punish them.
Those chances will dry up, as they did for TFC after last year's half-decent start.
Nelsen has a lot still to figure out. A lot of the pieces are there, but many more of the pieces on hand still need to develop.
You can only spend so much in MLS. You can't really buy a winner – you eventually have to build one.