Friday, April 17, 2015

Happy Birthday Mr. Hornby

Hornby at Highbury

Today is Nick Hornby's birthday. I have been aware for many a year that he and I were both born in 1957. I might have mentioned that too many times in my life.  Not my most pathetic attempt at reflected glory, but in the vicinity. (btw) The other 1957 birth that I am too fond of mentioning is Lyle Lovett, which somehow fits unless it doesn't.

I have read an awful lot of Nick Hornby and I do enjoy both his fiction and his non-fiction. A writer of humour and insight with obsessions directed at books, music and football seems to be a gift from heaven to my twisted mind. He is one of those writers that I am unsure that I would enjoy the company of. Perhaps he fits better into my scheme of the world as a magnetic force than an actual human. So it takes a bit of energy to wish him a happy birthday. It means that I am treating him like a person.

It all goes back to "Fever Pitch", his non-fiction tale of growing up and growing into and then being totally gripped by his devotion to Arsenal Football Club. I had combined writing and football from before I read Hornby, but nothing will ever weld those things together more than "Fever Pitch". I lived in England for a time in 1979 and 1980 and I entertain the notion that I might have attended a match at Highbury. That seems important to me. As if breathing the same air and watching Liam Brady at the same time means a connection. Did I mention pathetic attempts at reflected glory?

No Hornby, no Mistake by the Lake I would argue. Following a team from afar was a primitive matter in my youth and TFC gave me an opportunity (long after my youth) to be with a team from day 1 and contribute to a legacy that I only glimpsed with Arsenal back then.  (Funny too, that over the years since I have been more aware of my father's history and legacy and consider Everton the team deserving of my support from afar).
I only hope that from time to time my blogging has even a microscopic touch of Hornby in that I attempt to catch the self-imposed mental suffering and those small glimpses of glory that come with following a football team. TFC wallows in the former, might completely avoid the latter.

 Not sure that I have captured what I intended to convey here, so I will let you get back to your cake and candles.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Chicago Fire 3 Toronto FC 2 OR 2 steps forward, 3 steps back

Wipe Out

I am not hitting the panic button after the four road games that have started TFC season 2015, but I am making sure that I know where that button is located. Perhaps the victory over the Whitecaps gave us the wrong impression, had us believing that the team was farther along the process of team building than they truly are.

Vanney's TFC continues to play with a 4-3-3 formation, but using the two halfbacks as attacking wingbacks constantly puts a lot of pressure on the central pairing. In Chicago that pair were Hagglund and Morrow. Neither gave a performance of dominating defending or dazzling attack from the back. Perhaps the perfect pairing for Vanney, amongst the players currently on the roster, would be Perquis and Simonin. Two defenders who have the offensive skills to make Vanney's "attack from the back". The worrying trend is that when TFC central defenders are not dazzling us with precise passing from the back, Michael Bradley falls back to play that role. Now I concede this was truest in Chicago when TFC were down to 10 men. When Bradley is way back, the Vanney love of three forwards is at it's worst. Scrambling from the back leads to long ball desperation and all those forwards are bound to be lacking service.

Speaking of down to ten men, Warren Creavalle will not play the next game thanks to his red card (two yellows) yesterday. It takes a team to lose, but Creavalle is sticking out for all the wrong reasons. It might be difficult to find a TFC fan concerned about playing without Creavalle next game. The first Fire goal was due to Morrow losing the ball under pressure in a bad spot. Michael Bradley stuck out as watching more than defending, but Creavalle was a witness from behind the play too. The second Fire goal was a combination of Hagglund not closing down the space on the attacker and Creavalle guarding ghosts. When the ball is that close to your goal, if you are not pressing the attacker or marking a man, you are essentially a pylon obscuring your keeper. Then the third Chicago goal took place off of the free kick that followed the Creavalle open field foul that had him sent off. Just awful defending or rather replacing defending with out and out fouling.

Since I'm chattering about three forwards, time to put forth my worries about Robbie Findley. Perhaps he is suffering from poor service, often playing the same side of the field as Warren Creavalle (will his time in the hot seat never end?), but I worry that he has not contributed enough to justify his starting role. We entering chicken/egg territory for Easter here. Is the third forward a fifth wheel because it is Findley or is Findley facing the universal third forward problem?

On a personal note, I may have hurt my arm from excessively patting myself on the back. The blog post last week included my prediction that BOTH Cheyrou and Giovinco would score their first MLS goals against Chicago. The Gio goal was a fluke and he was smart enough to barely celebrate it. The combination of Gio and Cheyrou made the second TFC goal much more of a satisfying treat. As President Bush once said, Mission Accomplished. Now I am hoping that my prediction of Perquis and Simonin as the central pairing becomes my next success.

So far I have been heavy on the criticism. A road loss where moments of TFC skill and buildup were negated by amateur hour will do that to a blogger. I have to give credit to another strong performance from Ashtone Morgan. His cutback to Giovinco for his blooper goal was smart play in deep. Just as very little attack seems to come from the Findley/Creavalle side of the field, Morgan's side seemed well defended. In the first half breakaway by Chicago's Accam, not only did Joe Bendik make a smart save, but Ashtone Morgan kept the pressure on in pursuit. The Morgan of a few years ago would have tried something desperate.

The ongoing road trip is now down to three games ahead. Dallas, Orlando and Philly and something tells me that Toronto will look strongest against Dallas, despite their current strong form. The flip is that the other two games will be the ones where you think points could be had and the frustration level will continue.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

RSL 2 TFC 1 - a late letdown, but positives aplenty

I think it is fair to observe that most TFC fans tuned into the Sunday night game versus Real Salt Lake with defensive fears once they knew who were starting as the back four (Creavalle, Hagglund, Simonin and Morgan).
Although both RSL goals were taking advantage of shoddy marking, it was not the TFC defensive norm for most of the game.
Toronto had a few first half moments, but they came on stronger in the second half. I need to see some replays of the disallowed Hagglund goal, I missed the foul on the broadcast.
When you consider that Bradley and Altidore were missing on international duty, Caldwell and Perquis (the vet central defending pairing) were injured and Morrow was serving his red card suspension, TFC showed some depth and plenty of battling ability.
Cheyrou and Giovinco were both solid contributors. I am sticking my neck out and predicting that both will score their first TFC goals in Chicago next weekend. Since my neck is out, I am going to look ahead and say TFC wins in Chicago and Philly, draws in Orlando and Dallas. That would give them 11 points prior to playing their first home game in May. Fingers are crossed.

Until then....sorry just too tired for an in-depth analysis. I am feeling that Coach Vanney has the team properly prepped and playing a fluid style. I could see where he was going with his substitutions. They were timely and positive.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Gantar the ref from Hell, beats TFC by two Columbus goals, "What can you say? He’s just not good enough.”

Clearly playing the ball not the man

Gantar, the ref from hell, botched another TFC game last evening. Late in the first half he red carded Justin Morrow.  Hell, he tried to red card Damien Perquis, which is a clear indication that he is not up to the job.
Yes, I have the luxury of hindsight. I have watched the video multiple times. I chose the above screen shot to underline how hopeless the assistant ref had to be to support Gantar. He is in the top of the picture with nothing between him and Morrow with the ball at his feet. He deserves to be banished along with Gantar.

You can't call a foul on a defender in this situation. He is playing the ball. It is not even a situation of one leg going for the ball and the trailing leg fouling the attacker, he had BOTH legs ahead of the attacker. Even if the back of Morrow is being kicked by the attacker, Morrow has position. He has precedence. Any contact in this spot is a foul to the attacker. If he (Ethan Finley) makes contact with the back of the defender's legs WHO IS PLAYING THE BALL and then goes to ground HE GETS BOOKED FOR SIMULATION. It is not even a 50/50 ball, not even a shoulder to shoulder situation. Morrow probably felt he could not risk a shoulder to shoulder stance as last man back, so he won the ball.

Up until this moment, it was a game that hung in the balance. I can't bring myself to dissect the TFC defensive lapses that made the Columbus goals possible, since the Gantar decision created an unbalanced second half.
It does underline the need for TFC to establish themselves early. Giovinco had some shots that were worthy. Cheyrou played well. I am still not sold on the TFC midfield as a central block and letting Creavalle and Morrow be responsible for all wing play. Having an overlapping back works best with an element of surprise. Vanney's TFC uses it as a steady diet item.
I am most worried about Ashtone Morgan, who took over as left back with the banishment of Morrow. I have been a fan of Morgan's, often attributing his mistakes to youthful exuberance. Last night he was gambling and losing balls in open field, failing to get goal side when Altidore was back helping defend Morgan's section of the pitch. Just awful.
Two weeks until TFC play away in Utah (Real Salt Lake). Hopefully the sting of this cruel outcome will fuel some fire for that next game. Stay tuned

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Game 1 - TFC controls Whitecaps and parade route planning begins VW 1 TFC 3

Welcome season 2015! Fire up the television set and adjust the antenna, we are about to watch the TFC Bradleys play game 1 on the road in Vancouver.

Now this blogger has been keeping an intensely low profile. Oh yes, I watched those pre-season games from Brandenton Florida. But what was the point of blogging about mist and rain and strange camera angles, I ask you? You knew that they looked ragged. Yet, you had to expect that considering just how many newcomers were trying to fit into the squad. Sure Altidore and Bradley have had years together through their USMNT days, but Perquis and Cheyrou and Giovinco and Findley are in that crunchy mix too. 

They still looked somewhat in the crunchy mix phase as the first half in Vancouver rolled along. Whitecap newcomer Octavio Rivero missed a gift with a stutter step and you feared that it would be the only break Toronto got for the night. The home team looked like a smooth concoction and it seemed as if their plan of attack was to hit Caldwell with speedy players who could glide on by. One of those glides did result in the Vancouver goal as Whitecap Kah set up Octavio Rivero for his first Vancouver goal and the injustice of that earlier miss was put to rest.

However the rest of the story was a shocker. The Whitecaps lost control of the midfield, could not control the ball and started passing the ball as if they had just met for the first time before the game. Where did Coach Carl Robinson's cinderella run to the playoff guys go to? TFC started to play a control game, creating a slow build up and using thoughtful movement. Their passing began to take  over.
Then Osorio to Giovinco, Gio curled around a defender and fed a through ball to Altidore and Jozy Altidore had his first TFC goal. It was a statement goal. It might be too, too early to call it a "I can be a Defoe-like scorer around here" sort of statement, but you got the sense that  

Now I am not a fan of 4-3-3, at least not the way Winter's TFC used to play it.  TFC started with Altidore as the left winger (although he crossed to the right for goal 1) and tiny Giovinco as a centre forward. The midfield of Osorio, Cheyrou and Bradley seemed to start off in an unsure formation, they were bunching up and not getting their tracking back assignments clear between them.
Then once the game was tied, the cohesion of TFC just seemed to rise. The second half was all Toronto. Sure, Joe Bendik had to make some saves and the defenders were tested. Morrow was able to attack down the left wing (his run and cross created the Findley goal making it 2 for TFC), Creavalle had a sturdy game on the right. Perquis looks like a real find, positions himself well, recovers quickly and might be the best TFC central defender on the ball since, since, since ever? I think that second half Bradley was protecting Caldwell from the young lightning bolts of Vancouver, but they both played well. I like Cheyrou's style and passing. The potential power of Altidore (scored his second goal on a pk) and Giovinco has to put a smile on every Toronto fan's face tonight.

Now I know, I know - TFC started last year with a win on the road (Seattle) and we were instantly swept up. But I have a feeling that the Toronto Bradleys are a stronger team than the Toronto Bradley-Defoes of 2014. Not that they are in any way a one man team, Cheyrou allows Michael Bradley a comfort zone and the attacking options are amazing. It is just easier to call them the Toronto Bradleys than a mishmash of Gio and Jozy and Benoit and Damien and....

Going out on a limb here, but I think Columbus (TFC's road opponent next weekend) could be a touch worried. Stay tuned and keep smiling. Mother's Day (the day of TFC's home opener) is still two months away.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Out of the cold lakeside fog a plan emerges....TFC offseason moves

Recent weeks have been too much for me. I am a unabashed Bez Basher and here he goes making moves that I approve of!! wtf as the kids say....

The action seems to set up the dialogue- something like this...

Bez Action

TFC draft Alex Bono with their first pick in the MLS draft. Gen Adidas player so no salary cap hit for years. He has enough promise that he is not present at the draft, he is at a USMNT camp having a Jurgen Klinsmann visit.

Fan comment 

A keeper? We have a starter, a young prospect and a vet backup (Bendik, Roberts and Konopka). Defending was our problem and Doneil Henry is gone to West Ham. Please fill the defender ranks Mr. Bez.

Bez Action

TFC draft three defenders in a row from the college ranks (Clement Simonin, Skylar Thomas and Wes Charpee).

Fan comment

Oh sure, a flood of rookie defenders who, instead of being forced to fill in for Caldwell when injured, should be suiting up for the USL Pro team...

Bez Action 

TFC signs Damien Perquis late of Real Betis and an experienced centre back. TFC trades with Seattle Sounders for Erik Zavaleta who had been playing as a centre back for Chivas USA on loan and happens to be nephew to Coach Vanney.
Found this Canadian Press pic on the Guelph Mercury site - it is a better pic of Sportsnet's John Molinaro tweeting than of new TFC defender Damian Perquis. The KIA TFC backdrop is there for a reason....

Fan comment

Okay, enough defenders already. You have high priced talent in the middle of the pitch, Bradley, Giovinco and Altidore. Yet we have little on the wings. Jackson scored 5? Oduro 2 and Lovitz 0. You know if you don't get some wide threats teams are going to clog up the middle because TFC can't generate attack from the wings...

Bez Action 

TFC trade Dominic Oduro to Montreal for allocation cash

Fan comment

Either TFC is going to depend on Jackson and Lovitz to play wide or some future move is taking shape...

We foolish few who sweat over the small TFC stuff are starting to see a Bez pattern and I am having a hard time finding anything amiss with it. The casual fan might be swept up with the big signings of Altidore and Giovinco, but the lovers of the nitty gritty have been happy as holes have been filled and the team has been taking shape.

Dare I suggest a defensive midfielder and a winger?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

TFC signs Sebastian Giovinco to largest MLS salary (and still I worry for TFC 2015)

Sebastian "Atomic Ant" Giovinco

I have been struggling for days with the recent onslaught of TFC news. Good news and great news has been tumbling in, but how do I turn this info into a blog post. Just what is the official "Mistake by the Lake" take on the state of TFC?

It was an incredible moment last weekend when a friend and fellow fan contacted me and told me that the Sebastian Giovinco signing was breaking news. I do not follow Serie A, but I know what level of quality player Juventus represents. The signing of a 27 year old player from a UEFA Champions League level Italian superclub is a MLS and Toronto breakthrough. Yet I have not spent the hours since then thinking that TFC have finally stumbled on the winning formula. I have my concerns.

Arrival concern

Since his contract with Juventus ends with June, Giovinco is scheduled to begin with Toronto on July 1st. The problem with that is the Gold Cup. It is scheduled for July this summer, so Giovinco will arrive just in time to see the best Americans and Canadians on TFC leave to play for their national teams. If he is unable to train or play with the team in June, I just have the feeling that August will be when the team truly gathers. That is a long time to wait for a finished product, although finishing the year better than you started is not TFC tradition.
Internet rumours are pointing towards TFC paying a transfer fee to move Giovinco into Toronto colours earlier. That is a move I would applaud.

Size concern

The MLS is a physical league. Combine athletic defending muscle with shaky officiating and you have a tough place for a smaller attacking player to thrive. Giovinco is not Joao Plata sized, but I worry...

Adjustment concern

I feel that in order to know what will make things right in Toronto for Giovinco, we need to know what went wrong with Jermain Defoe
Giovinco has never been to Toronto before, which I think was also true of Defoe at the time of his signing. 

Coaching concern

I will save this one for a future post.

A historical footnote

Roberto Bettega - top left

I just had to cover my little sense of deja vu and in doing so reveal just how old this blogger is.
Toronto has been down this path before as have local soccer fans of my generation and older. In 1983 the Toronto Blizzard signed Roberto Bettega from Juventus to play in Toronto. Bettega played two years in Toronto and even played in The Soccer Bowl at Varsity Stadium. He scored in a losing cause in the Blizzard's final game in the NASL.

I have never been a fan of the team building through national heritage approach. I have argued long and hard that locally developed talent is the future of the game in Canada and I continue to scratch my head as to why we have not produced. It is a sad state really. 30 years ago, watching Bettega in a Blizzard uniform, would I have predicted that come 2015 we would still be importing Euro talent because we have none of our own to compare?

Talk soon...