Wheeler's Insider | Formation, Akinola, Moor and More

Two wins from the first two games of the 2019 MLS season has provided a glimpse of a more pragmatic and versatile Toronto FC.

Head Coach Greg Vanney called the 3-1 result in Philadelphia and the 3-2 victory over New England in the home opener as “mentality” wins.  The coaching staff and players say these were the type of games they wouldn’t have won last season.

The mentality in the group is better.  And clearly a proper off-season for key players to get back to full health is a major lift as well.  But credit must also be given to the team for being flexible in formation and adaptable to the occasion.  Toronto FC started the two games in different formations, altering the shape and changing personnel.  It’s this kind of flexibility and versatility that Vanney and his staff desire, and something this group of players pride themselves on.

Vanney used a 3-4-3 formation in Philadelphia to great success.  The three centre-back formation was a familiar look from the treble winning 2017 season, with Drew Moor playing between Laurent Ciman and Chris Mavinga.  The move stabilized the backline, allowing the fullbacks to press higher while giving the team more numbers at the back to deal with a Union side playing with two strikers.  Higher up the field, Jonathan Osorio and Nick DeLeon expertly defended more inside, limiting playmaker Haris Medunjanin. It was a good shape for the game, especially an early season match on the road on a day they were never going to dominate possession.

I asked Vanney after the match whether we would predominantly see a three centre-back formation moving forward, considering its success in recent vintage.  Vanney stressed the shape of the team would be determined on a game by game basis, depending on 1) how the opponent looks to line up, 2) how TFC wants to play the game, as well as 3) available personnel.  The mantra is while the formation may change, the ideology and principles stay the same.  Vanney and the group remain committed to a style of play rather than formation.  While the system may change, the ideology and principles remain consistent.  The way the team attacks by manipulating numbers and space is the same no matter how they line up.

True to form, Vanney changed his formation for Sunday’s home opener to a 4-4-2. The shape put more numbers higher up the field, with the fullbacks effectively pushing play down the flanks.  Michael Bradley dropped back at times in between the two centre-backs to start the attack, making for more of a 3-5-2 from time to time.  Up top, Jordan Hamilton and Ayo Akinola were able to find pockets of space in behind the holding midfielders, taking full advantage of the scouting report of a team vulnerable in those areas. Vanney said in his postgame press conference he felt New England were expecting Toronto to play with three at the back and Toronto’s ability to surprise and dictate terms was huge in the win.

Two games with two different formations bodes well for the group.  And there are plenty of other versions within the team objectives we can expect to see. Formations featuring two holding midfielders and/or with two higher attacking wingers may also feature prominently.  No matter the shape, there will be a level of unpredictability when playing TFC for opponents, not fully knowing what to expect when playing the Reds. And with further recruitment taking place, the diversity in shape and personnel will make any pre-scout that much more difficult.   A regular change in system will also give the centre-backs the benefit of rotation and rest.  This is necessary with Mavinga coming off an injury-plagued season, while Moor (34) and Ciman (33) are past the age of 30.  

The ability to mix it up and play different ways wasn’t a luxury TFC was afforded in recent seasons.  The never-ending injury list from a season ago didn’t allow for tactical nuance.  Sheer survival ended up being the goal.  And in seasons before, the existing personnel basically picked itself.  Having Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco meant automatic selection and two strikers when fit.  Concessions then had to be made to make up for potential defensive deficiencies coming from a limited set-up.  Thus a 3-5-2 was settled upon based on best players available.  Now, with different types of players in the team, and more signings to join in due order, Toronto can play multiple ways with multiple players, depending on what the game or moment calls for.  This is the evolution of the group and a shift the coaching staff desires.

Flashes of this type adaptability in featured in 2017.  It was the MLS Cup Final where Vanney had a tactical masterclass, moving from the 3-5-2 he used virtually all season to a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond.  The system took Seattle by surprise, tearing the Sounders to shreds in the one-sided 2-0 victory.  The plan entering 2018 was to build and expand on that identity.  The growing pains of adaptation were plain to see.

The start to 2019 gives new hope that a dynamic and versatile side will usher in a new era of success.  The evolution of the group will be something to watch as the group balances short-term success with long-term vision.  Guiding footballing principles have been put in place that run from the first team down through the academy.  An established continuity and clear identity for TFC is what can take the club to the next level, creating an environment conducive to consistent success.

Moor is More

Drew Moor has already accomplished something he only did once all last season: playing 90 minutes in back to back games.  And the best news of all, Moor feels in great shape and has come out of the games unscathed.

The 2018 season for Moor was nothing but injury and frustration, limited to just six starts and 568 minutes of MLS football.  TFC struggled to cope with the extended absence of their leader from the back.  There is no question Toronto are a better defensive team with Moor back on the field.  The numbers with and without Moor in the team tell the story:

Moor at TFC since 2016:

30 W - 15 L - 17 D (1.73 points per game) and 74 goals against in 62 games (1.19 goals against per game) in regular season games he plays 90 minutes

16 W - 17 L - 9 D (1.36 points per game) and 69 goals against in 42 games (1.64 goals against per game) in regular season game he doesn’t play 90 minutes

The post-season numbers are even dramatic.  Toronto has only conceded seven goals in 10 playoff games Moor played the entire match (including two 120-minute games), while only losing two in the process.

Moor’s minutes will be managed this season.  Realistically over the marathon, he cannot be expected to play every game.  Moor tells me in whatever role, he’s up for the challenge and feeling good about the group.  He calls Mavinga the best defender in MLS and has nothing but praise for Ciman would won best defender in MLS in 2015. With Eriq Zavaleta also bringing quality and experience, Moor expects the defensive group to be vastly improved from where the team was a season ago.

Around the Wheeler

  • Ayo Akinola became the first Toronto FC player to score who was born in the 2000’s.  The teenager celebrated his 19th birthday on January 20.  He also became the eighth TFC player to score in their first MLS start. 
    • Ayo Akinola (03/17/2019 vs. New England Revolution)
    • Lucas Janson (08/18/2018 at San Jose Earthquakes)
    • Mitchell Taintor (04/21/2018 at Houston Dynamo)
    • Jermain Defoe (03/15/2014 at Seattle Sounders)
    • Joao Plata (05/07/2011 vs. Houston Dynamo)
    • O'Brian White (08/15/2009 vs. D.C. United)
    • Ali Gerba (07/25/2009 at Columbus Crew)
    • Jarrod Smith (04/13/2008 at LA Galaxy)
  • Altidore has five goals in his last 380 minutes of MLS play; that’s a goal every 76 minutes.  And that’s 358 minutes of an injured Altidore and 22 minutes from a player coming off a five-month layoff.
  • Osorio was outstanding playing alongside Bradley in central midfield Sunday.  A late injury to Marky Delgado pushed Osorio back into a central role.  It’s the position he now features prominently with the Canadian Men’s National team and one of which he has taken ownership.  His positional versatility is a real asset for the team, as Osorio has developed into being equally impressive going forward as he is now in defending the position.
  • Toronto FC picked up only four points all of last season after conceding the first goal (1W - 17L- 1D). They are now on three points in one game after conceding first on this season.
  • Alejandro Pozuelo is set to arrive in Toronto later this week and is reportedly still on track to feature for Toronto FC in the next home game on Friday March 29 against New York City FC.
  • General Manager Ali Curtis was a special guest at Red Assembly ahead of the home opener.  Curtis told the crowd the front office is working hard to bring in two or three more signings. Stay tuned. 
  • Jay Chapman had two assists in his first start of the season.  That’s more assists than he had in 2017/2018 combined.  A great start for the 25-year-old.
  • Chapman and Liam Fraser were late call-ups, joining Osorio with the Canadian Men’s National team this week.  Bradley (USMNT) and Akinola (USA U-20) are also away from the group.