Toronto FC

Reds drop season finale in Philadelphia, look to regroup in offseason

Toronto FC lost their final match of the 2022 MLS regular season on Sunday, falling 4-0 away to the Philadelphia Union at Subaru Park.

Daniel Gazdag opened the scoring after four minutes, Mikael Uhre made it 2-0 before halftime, and Gazdag completed his hat-trick around the hour mark, scoring his second from the penalty spot in the 60th minute and adding his third three minutes later.

TFC had hoped that a shift to a three-man back-line would help contain a potent Union attack, but before the match had even really begun the home side was ahead.

“The way Philadelphia plays with their diamond, the way Gazdag stays up high with Uhre and [Julian] Carranza, we thought that might allow us a little bit better shape in terms of how we could engage them,” said Bob Bradley post-match. “In order to do that, we needed to make sure that our centre-backs stepped out aggressively and we didn't start the game that way.”

“After we gave up that early goal we started to be a little bit more aggressive, had some better stretches,” he continued. “Their main threat overall was that they play a lot of balls behind the defense, the timing of the ball and the runs, and so our ability to understand when to drop, our ability to step up, move up the field faster, so that we weren't caught half-and-half, those are little details that if you don't get right, that's what makes Philadelphia a dangerous team.” 

Down two goals, there was a moment where TFC could have forced their way back into the game, but a non-call at one end when Mark-Anthony Kaye appeared to be hauled down in the box and a tight handball decision at the other saw Philadelphia go up 3-0 and then nab a fourth.

Those are the fine margins, the little swings in a game that can define a season.

“We didn't find enough ways to take advantage of key moments,” summed up Bradley. “We seem to be a little bit slower to react to a given play and the other team a bit faster thinking, a little bit faster to get to something. If that's the case, then the bar can tilt in some of those random key moments – not something that's coming in a big way based upon how the game is playing out or tactically what's going on, but just a quick situation.”

“That's part of football, the ability to help your team improve so that the different types of situations that present themselves in a game – that can be anything: how quickly you move up, a reaction to close down, that can be as one guy goes in on a tackle the second guy is ready, it can be the speed at which you play the ball, on and on and on. The best teams, the package of those things, they are usually doing better than opponents. And if that drops a little bit, then that team loses its edge,” he continued. “An example would be, in the moment, Liverpool. It's still a great team, but some of those small little details that when they're at their best are on such a high level, now aren't quite at the same level and the margin in every game gets tighter and tighter and tighter.”

“When you look at our season, overall our margin in games, our ability when we do something good to make a big chance happen, to take advantage of an opportunity, score the right goal, make the right pass. And if you compare that with our ability then it's certain moments when we've got to deal with a quick situation, make a play in the back, react faster, make a save, those things were not aligned in a way that you can be a very good team,” Bradley balanced. “That is in part improving the roster and that is in part the work collectively to improve on all these details.”

With the final whistle Philadelphia go into the playoffs as the top side in the East, Toronto will be missing out.

“They have an extremely strong idea of what type of team they are, how they play, and how they're built. It was obvious from the first second,” said Quentin Westberg, asked the difference between the two sides. “Philadelphia has been the most consistent team since I joined the league four years ago. They're a very hardworking team that have very clear tactical principles. They have what it takes to go quite far.”

“Compared to us building on foundations, very solid foundations, we've had a bit of changes, more changes to face,” he continued. “They have been able to build on a more consistent basis.”

On the last day of the season, it was a good measuring stick for TFC heading into the offseason. Seeing where one stands, how much further there is to go.

“Comparing makes sense because today we played them, but also it's unfair because as clubs we're at different stages,” cautioned Westberg. “It's trusting the process. From a player's standpoint, it’s showing up and making sure you understand the responsibility you have when wear that crest, when you know how nice it is to play for this club. Whatever the identity, whatever the playing style, it's about adapting and bringing our own personality. It's an interesting part.”

“When you walk into this club you understand that pleasing the fans, bringing wins and bringing great nights to our fans is really important, it’s what this club is all about,” he continued. “It becomes very tricky because in football, it's small details, the comprehension, the communication, everything. And it's also super thrilling because it's... yeah, it's not always sunny, it's not always super bliss, but hanging in there and rolling with the punches brings a lot of pride at the end of the day when you start winning.”

The first season of a new era that began when Bob Bradley arrived at the club comes to an end.

“We tried to raise the bar this year, but I look hard at everything and say that we have a long ways to go,” said the TFC head coach. “There's a lot of work to be done. We tried to raise the bar in every way and now you need a little time and you need to talk to guys to find out, in different moments, how they felt about it.”

“When you raise the bar and try to push some players out of comfort zones, some are up for it, others aren’t,” he continued. “Sometimes it might be that they have a year of that and then they're ready to really push harder – that part of seeing more guys grow on the job, getting better, becoming more dependable, more consistent, that's going to be important. Probably the most important thing for a team to get better.”

In a season that saw a lot of young players make their first strides in MLS, it was good to see Hugo Mbongue make his first team debut and Themi Antonoglou, who scored a stunning brace in the MLS NEXT Pro Eastern Conference Final last weekend, got some valuable minutes as well.

“It’s important to players,” noted Bradley. “Two players that have trained at different times with the first team this year, did well for the second team, players that we hope we can push along.”

End of season media is scheduled for next week, so there will be more time to diagnose the season and look forward to the next one, but the initial words to describe 2022 from both Bradley and Westberg were “very challenging.”

“These are the words,” Westberg agreed with his coach. “Trying to find momentum – two or three times in the season we had a little bit going, but these spirits were overturned with bad losing streaks. That made it a roller coaster year in terms of results and with a very young group to start with and a team that was shaping up, it got difficult to build on negative results.”

“There was a boost in the summer that took a slow ending and then a rough one these last two games. Very challenging,” he repeated. “As athletes we want to win, we want to play teams off the field, we want to play well, we want to build. There's a lot of things that come into consideration and then facing all these challenges and stepping up and showing up every day when everything is not going your way, it takes a toll on people. But for the young guys they're going to need that resilience because nothing comes easy. For us more experienced players it's another good lesson, something to fix, but a proper humility check.”

Closed Bradley: “From start to finish this was a very, very challenging year.”

“Challenging looking at existing situations, challenging to figure out ways to improve the roster, challenging with the wait of guys coming in midseason, challenging with the different injuries where when you have a little chance to get a bit more consistency you were never able to do that,” he continued. “The biggest example would have been seeing more games where Michael [Bradley] and Mark-Anthony and Oso [Jonathan Osorio] could have played in the midfield; there's other examples like that.”

“In all ways just a huge challenge – probably, in that regard, one of the most challenging years that I've ever had as coach, to keep guys going, to try to keep them focused on things that we needed to think about every day,” Bradley added. “It's a test for everybody. I appreciate all the efforts, but, at the same time, some do better than others when it gets cranked up to a higher level. We have to really assess all that and understand that we've got to take away really important [lessons and use that] to build on to become a good team.”