Toronto FC

Reds focus on resilience and strategy ahead of Columbus Crew clash


A little less than 12 hours after the final whistle against Orlando City SC, John Herdman and Toronto FC were back at work.

Herdman walked in the door at the BMO Training Ground around 8:00 am as the side began its preparations for Saturday’s clash away to the Columbus Crew.

“Today was regen, players have come in and those that require the extra work have been out and put a good shift in on the field. I've had a couple of one-on-one connects with players this morning and then we'll be refocusing back in on Friday,” recounted Herdman of Thursday’s process. “Today I tend to let the dust settle, I’ve asked the players to review and then tomorrow we hit them with some clarity.”

“For the coaching staff we have to be able to take the emotion out of the event, look at the hard facts,” he continued. “We've reviewed our film and we'll approach the team tomorrow with what's required.”

The midweek defeat was the fifth in a row. It’s not being overpowered from whistle-to-whistle that is proving TFC’s undoing, but periods within those matches where the balance turns.

Against Chicago it was two goals in a three-minute spell at the start of the second half, against Nashville it was the last 25 minutes, against New York it was the end of the first half and the start of the second, Atlanta was a different story, but Orlando was the same: a 20-minute period at the end of the first half.

Even before this run, the 2-2 draw against D.C. United at the start of June, it was the final 10 minutes plus stoppage-time that turned the result.

“This is the slump,” identified Herdman. “The slump we encountered in the second half against D.C., the second half against Nashville, that slump I'd seen in the Red Bulls game – we had a 15-minute period where we were in the game and then 15 where we're out of the game.”

“The team becomes quite static, we lose our intent, the commitment to read certain pressing triggers and to go after the triggers collectively,” he continued. “It's almost like a survival mode that starts to set in or a comfort zone, where we feel we can take our foot off the gas. I said this [post-match on Wednesday] it just feels [like] if we score a goal or we get good momentum that we've done enough. That's what we're addressing.”

“The individual conversations this morning, the footage, we were driving to that, showing the pressing cues that we'd missed and moments where the shift across the field or up the field just wasn't quick enough, or the runs that were lacking into the channel that will stretch the opposition back line, which creates the space for other players. That 20-minute period, it's a slum,” Herdman added. “I've been working with the sports science team this morning as well, looking at some of the figures and trying to give some rationale to why. These are things we're searching at the moment. We are seeing that dip physically and we've got to get towards it.”

The other 70-odd minutes, TFC are competing.

“We've had some really good spells of possession and defending. When we're tuned in, we're fully in, all in, committed as 11, we attack as good as any team in MLS,” highlighted Herdman. “Some of our ability to break opposition high presses, our ability to break the medium press, our ability to put ourselves in scoring positions, we've seen us do that consistently.”

“And then defensively, when that 5-2-3 is tight and we're able to match the overloads that our opposition put in front of us like we did against Atlanta for long periods. When we're consistently tight and we're cohesively in that way, matching the rhythm of the game, we're a top team in MLS,” he continued. “There's no doubt. We just haven't been able to sustain that tempo and that's for different reasons.”

“You don't have a Jonathan Osorio, you don't have a Richie Laryea, you've lost Alonso Coello who is one of the players that can hit 12-13 [kilometres] a game – at the minute we've only got Matty Longstaff who can push those sorts of numbers out in our squad,” Herdman outlined. “So you’re seeing the inconsistency in our performance across games and in games, because that's what we're dealing with: a team that has a little bit of square pegs in round holes, guys that are coming off two games, back-to-back, limited squad rotation. Squad rotation impacts the quality and when quality then is impacted, your ability to control possession, etc, etc. There's a number of domino effects.”

“But the thing I've really enjoyed is there's been a commitment to the attacking identity,” he added. “And when we're fully dialed in, whether it's 50 minutes, 60 minutes, you can see the real opportunity that this team has to be a top team in MLS.”

Injuries, suspensions, international duty, Toronto has not been able to put out the same starting XI in back-to-back games once this season.

That forced rotation will continue, Deybi Flores is suspended for the weekend due to yellow card accumulation and Derrick Etienne Jr. left the Orlando game with a knock.

Herdman was candid post-match about his disappointment in the performance.

“I’m an emotional guy, I wear my heart on my sleeve, sometimes to a fault, but yeah there's no doubt it's tough,” he explained in the cool light of day. “After this type of run you take it to heart, of course you do. You want to do so well for the fans, for the city; for the lads, for the club, and you're just waiting for that turning point.

“But as I've said to the group, as I've said to the staff, we can't wait for a turning point, we’ve got to make that happen,” Herdman urged. “We’ve got to focus in on the things that we're good at, the things that are going well, double down on those areas, and tighten up some of those small gaps.”

“Going to bed last night, I couldn't help but look at that 20-minute period and try and draw some conclusions so you came in here this morning with a clearer mind. If you’re having a tough period, the critical part is you’ve got to double down on process,” he levelled. “You've got to come back to systems, processes, and that's what we're doing. Trying to surrender that emotion a bit and just come back to clarity as quick as we can, but use the emotion in the right way, at the right time.”

Toronto will not have long to dwell as this weekend’s opponent, Columbus, are the defending MLS Cup Champions and reached the final of the Concacaf Champions Cup earlier this year.

Wilfred Nancy’s side come in on the back of three-straight wins, most recently a 2-0 defeat of Nashville SC on Wednesday. Columbus has won all but one of their last eight matches.

“With Columbus, what you see is they have a consistent lineup that turns out every week,” said Herdman. “They've done a great job of being able to, over time, build the quality and depth in every position. They're able to sustain the tempo of MLS and when one man is down the next one comes in with the same level of quality.”

“It's what Toronto FC is aspiring to in terms of our club-wide approach and being able to build the sort of depth that it's going to take to really compete in that top four space,” he continued. “When we've been consistent with our lineups, we've been able to compete there, but when those lineups have shifted, one or two key players unavailable, then you can see we've tended to show that level of inconsistency.”

Cucho Hernández, with 10 goals and six assists, leads the scoring chart, while Diego Rossi has six and eight of his own.

The Crew are unbeaten in five against TFC – Toronto’s last result in Columbus was a draw in 2018, before their move to their new stadium, Field. The two sides will meet again after the Leagues Cup with Columbus coming to BMO Field on September 18.

The two did, however, meet in preseason behind closed doors.

“We played well against them in the preseason match, that was our first experience against Columbus,” recalled Herdman. “With Cucho, Rossi, [Christian] Ramírez in that front three and the way that they operate with their wing-backs, the intensity of their wing-backs, it's a formidable front five.”

“You've got to be really on your game,” he closed. “A collective of 11 players have to commit to defending against this team.”