It is probably fair to say that Friday night was not the date that Greg Vanney & Co. had circled on the calendar. Yes, it was a regular season game, and thus by definition meaningful, but it does not compare to Tuesday night. Tuesday night is when Club América, the biggest and winningest club in North American soccer history, and Concacaf Champions League winners twice in the last three years, come to BMO Field. Tuesday night is when the first leg of the semifinals takes place. Tuesday is the date that was circled.
So if the Reds never quite got out of third gear in their 3-1 win over visiting RSL, it's understandable. First because they didn't need to, and second because of what's on the horizon.
Third – and worryingly – is because they were missing starters at various spots throughout the lineup, which made for a makeshift XI. The Reds have toggled between a 3-5-2 and a 4-4-2 diamond, one in which a playmaker (almost always Victor Vazquez) sits underneath two forwards. On Friday, though, they opted for the old Y midfield used by the Galaxy:
That's a network passing graph made using Opta data. Each circle represents the location of the corresponding player's aggregate touch, and the thickness of the lines connecting circles represents the volume of passes exchanged. You can see that it was Marky Delgado (No. 18) in the central midfield role, but he's a far different player from Vazquez – more energy, less passing.
And so more of the build-up than usual ran through the flanks. Specifically the right-hand side, where Nicolas Hasler (No. 26) stayed wide and was the primary connector to Jozy Altidore, who made the most of it with a pair of goals and some generally clever play.
I don't know if there's much else to take from this game from a TFC point of view. It played out as both a good tune-up and maybe a slight misdirect (there's very little chance they'll play a Y midfield against Los Aguilas), and... yeah, that's about it.
On the other side, it's time for RSL to start playing mad instead of playing soft. There are a lot of things to pick apart about their approach – the biggest one being that they don't seem to have a plan for regularly getting the ball to their four attackers, which has caused them to play weird, choppy soccer all month long – but more than anything else is that they looked soft. They were not committed to winning individual battles, and when that happens, gaps start getting ripped in a defense that's not natively talented enough to survive such a thing.
Look, it's very difficult to contain Sebastian Giovinco in any situation, but Damir Kreilach has to do better than that. Kick him. Grab his shoulder and drag him down. Give up the foul and take a yellow.
Do not, however, let him turn you into Bambi on ice with a simple shoulder-drop and turn, because once that happens RSL's defense is hung out to dry.
Kreilach has struggled mightily. He was roasted in transition repeatedly by LAFC a few weeks back, and he had a hand in each of the first two TFC goals tonight:
Riddle me this: Why does Kreilach stop? There's no offside to play here. He keeps tracking Jozy, and there's no penalty.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) March 31, 2018
Dude's struggled in his adjustment to @MLS so far. #TORvRSL pic.twitter.com/S53au4B6o4
He's not the only one to blame on that play. There's almost never just one person to blame on any particular play in soccer. When bad things happen, they're usually from a cascade of failures.
That's been the story so far in the 2018 season for RSL, who were one of the most fun teams to watch in the second half of 2017 and were a popular pick in certain circles to finish at or near the top of the West.
They still might get there. This year's start has been nowhere near as catastrophic as what happened to them for the first few months of last season, and there remains a bunch of talent on that roster (including Homegrown rookie Corey Baird, who got himself a goal and has generally looked like the team's most energetic and committed player in his limited minutes thus far).
But they have to start playing with a little bit of blood, sweat, toil and tears because what's becoming clear is that if they don't, they're a speed bump. In case they thought they were too good for that, TFC gave them a painful lesson on Friday night.
RSL might want to circle that date on the calendar and use it as a reminder. If they don't, I worry that this season could start slipping away from them early the way that last year did.