I've written as much about Toronto FC this season as any other team in the league – maybe more, really. Partially it's because they have a guy authoring the single best attacking season in league history; partially it's because they're breaking an Odyssean-strength playoff drought (only a matter of time now); and partially because you all just love reading about Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, and I live to serve.
But mostly it's because they've been inscrutable. Whether it's been injury or international call-ups or just the desire to tinker, TFC have run out more formations and tactical approaches than anybody. They've made it both interesting (for me) and frustrating (for their fans), and that's good analyzin'.
And that brings us to Saturday's 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Union, which was their third on the trot. They've scored nine goals in that span, with four by Giovinco, two by Altidore, one each by Bradley and Damien Perquis, and an own goal from Richie Marquez. The guys who are supposed to be running the show are running the show, and the points are adding up, and it's all coming from a bog-standard 4-4-2, a formation that was supposed to have gone the way of the dodo sometime last decade.
It hasn't, because at its heart, the 4-4-2 remains A) reliable in its defensive simplicity, and B) flexible in its attacking application.
The place where it traditionally breaks down – especially against 4-2-3-1 teams – is in central midfield, the 4-4-2 loses the raw numbers battle from the start. The solution is to either bring one of the forwards back to help in possession, or to pinch one of the wide midfielders in.
TFC have done a bit of both. Here are the passing charts, courtesy of Opta, for left midfielder Jonathan Osorio over the past three games:
And here's where Altidore, nominally the center forward, has been picking up the ball:
Green lines are complete passes, yellows are key passes that lead to a shot, reds are incomplete passes, and blues are assists. Bear in mind that this spot on the field – dead center, 15-to-40 yards out – is the hardest spot to complete passes, because all modern defenses are geared toward preventing exactly that.
Look at how thoroughly TFC dominated their Philly counterparts, particularly in the first half:
Over the last three games Osorio and Altidore have filled that central channel by committee and the TFC attack has come to life. Their roles, which are circumscribed out of necessity, have freed up Giovinco to roam and create (and shoot, shoot, shoot – he takes more than anybody in MLS history), while giving everybody else the fulcrum through which they can build attacks.
It's nothing particularly new or ground-breaking. The only real tweak is that Altidore works deeper than most center forwards, usually trying to receive the ball between the lines rather than pushing up against any central defenders, and that may be more of a personal proclivity than any specifically delineated tactical adjustment.
Whatever the causes, the effect has been 270 minutes of really good, attacking soccer from Toronto, and an almost-certain appearance in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. They'll need to keep this up against the better teams, and at some point they'll have to show that they can manage this same sort of thing on the road.
But all the tinkering has brought the Reds to this place of enlightment, where simpler really is better.