Sunday, December 10, 2017

Toronto FC MLS Cup Champions 2017 TFC 2 Seattle 0

Toronto FC MLS Cup Champions 2017
Fuzzy view from Section 220
It happened.
We were there.
It all has a dream sense to it, though.

That was a victory fully, fully deserved. Redemption belonged to TFC and those true Red and Grey supporters who never wavered, but also never fully dreamed that this level of season was possible. I felt that not only was Toronto FC trying to defeat Seattle on the pitch, they were seeking to eradicate ghosts from 2016, the MLS Cup that got away.

Forgive the jumbled attempt at putting this all into words. I started writing this blog post Saturday evening. Here I am continuing to try to herd my emotions, thoughts, observations and reactions the next morning. So think of this as a muffled attempt at a first take, not a definitive essay to take you there.

If you want to read an INCREDIBLE account of TFC Cup victory and what it all means I say go to Brian Straus did an incredible job of it.

My admiration for Coach Greg Vanney went up plenty of levels as he made bold adjustments to his team and had them ready to attack.  For all the ink and pixels that will go to the stars of the MLS Cup victory, mention must be made of the spectacular games played by Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado. Those with more memory cells might be able to point to a game, but I can't think of the last time they played together. It is usually one or the other. To describe Osorio as struggling in the playoffs is putting it kindly. He has been awful on the ball, passing weak, giveaways plentiful and neglecting shooting opportunities. He played the game of his career yesterday when it was needed most. I am willing to listen to those who say Sebastian Giovinco has yet to fully star in a MLS Cup game, but Delgado and Osorio both were stars in my book. They seemed to show off every lesson that they have learned from playing with the great Victor Vazquez this season. They shocked me. I am sure it was a huge part in unsettling Seattle Sounders.

I thought that Michael Bradley deserved MOTM more than Jozy Altidore. A good game and a great goal from Jozy, but the tenacity of Bradley was the bigger deal. The formation of TFC can be fluid, but Bradley dropped out of the role of holding midfielder and actually ran the team from a central defending role. I had a better angle in the second half when for a time it was a back three of Mavinga, Bradley and Moor. Bradley shut them down. He made Seattle suffer. Jozy Altidore's goal just closed the door to the prison that Bradley had created.

You slowly, slowly take in reality on a game day I find. This becomes slower as the importance of a game increases. I felt that MLS Cup 2017 was turtle time in the Kennedy brain. Your senses are working overtime, but nervousness and tension and worry fog your thought processes.
One thought that came to me slowly. Post game, walking away into the cold, cold night. The next time I purchase a Toronto FC article of clothing it will have a star on it. A star, champions get to put a star on their chests.

I would be wrong to call Toronto FC 2017 everything a fan ever asked for. It was beyond that.

A few years ago, actually many a moon ago as it came out in 1993, Nick Hornby edited a book called "My Favourite Year". It is a compilation of writings about soccer seasons of note from various writers. At long last I and the TFC faithful have a chapter to contribute.

PS As promised I have changed the blog title to "By the lake". Mistake has been dropped. No mistakes made this season (wishing we had beaten Montreal during the CNE is a quibble, not a mistake). I did not dare to take mistake out of the url though. Urls are not to be messed with after 11 years...

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Jozy (from Victor and Seba) sends TFC to Cup final - TFC 1 Columbus Crew 0

I have to call it another night of tension. I remember thinking last November that I wish I could live the home playoff game with Montreal all over again, because I was so tight with fear during the game that my joy was muted. Last night was almost that sort of game. Almost.
All eyes were on Jozy Altidore in the second half of the game vs. Columbus last night. The fall onto his ankle was just out of my line of sight. Yes, I was ball watching, although it happened down my end of the field. Down he went and it looked serious enough that the two Crew defenders were helping him up.  He hobbled around, then sat down, then was attended to during a stoppage in play.  We watched as he threw his shin guards to the east side, then was down again, then being attended to by the benches on the west side. Armando Cooper was summoned and seemed to be getting ready.
How this prolonged injury drama swiftly turned into a run onto a PERFECTLY placed pass from Victor Vazquez and firing low to beat the Crew's superb young keeper Zach Steffen to score the goal that sent TFC to MLS Cup final 2017, I'll never know. I witnessed it. But the next day it still seems like a blurry dream.
I was guilty of thinking one moment, c'mon Jozy, it's not that bad, run it off. 
Then, c'mon Vanney, get on with a replacement.
Then, boom - the wonder of witnessing some beautiful soccer and Jozy claiming the goal that was required.

Still it was tense until that final whistle. Columbus was the team that I feared meeting most in the playoffs. The Crew were perhaps a toe away from the tie they needed as they missed some golden opportunities in those last minutes.

So TFC returns to hosting the MLS Cup final for the second year in a row. I am willing to argue that they have managed the "win ugly" or "just get to your destination" system needed for final Cup victory this time around.

Perhaps I have been watching way too much Netflix "Stranger Things" this fall. I am developing a theory that connects TFC with "the upside down", the alternate evil universe that parallels our own in unexpected ways.

TFC 2016 playoffs were a glorious goal fest. Knockout game = scored 3 goals, two legs against NYCFC = win 7-0 aggregate, two legs against Montreal = win 7-5 aggregate. 
Then on to the Cup final. Man, did we expect goals galore. To the stunning dismay of every Toronto FC fan, Seattle comes in from "the upside down" and takes victory despite playing dull, dull football. The magical save of Frei on Altidore in extra time must have involved strange powers from a Netflix production. I do recall seeing odd flakes floating in the air at the time.
(I have spent time on the CNE grounds looking for the tree with the mushy cavity that the Sounders used for their Toronto arrival just prior to Cup 2016. No success yet, but photo evidence is eagerly sought.)

So, in my Stranger Things alternate evil universe, TFC  learns and embraces "the upside down" for playoffs 2017. No running up the score. No firepower, no extended displays of offensive brilliance, just enough will do. A goal here and a goal there. TFC in playoffs 2017 have scored three goals and had two scored against them
They have vanquished all Eastern competition by pulling their powers from "the upside down". They seek to out-Seattle Seattle.

My tension begins to unwind. I start to entertain reasons why "Mistake by the Lake" should be adapted as a series for Netflix. I see "11" as both a starting number of players for a team and a memorable character. I think the pressure of anticipation of going to host the Cup again is going to mean more than my tension unwinds.
Keep warm, keep reading and keep it together.

December 9th awaits.

"Now the final stage of our plan is winning the MLS Cup. Last year, you could not score when you needed to score. This year, you go into the game thinking of both the flea and the acrobat. Seattle thinks they own that dimension, you must create a new portal."

No, not a second time

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

No TFC sparkle without stars - Columbus Crew 0 TFC 0

I feel that I want to play the blame game today. It's the morning after the playoff game and I am struggling to find the positives about the TFC performance in Columbus. Let me be a little clearer. I am pleased enough with the result. A draw on the road in November in the first leg of the Cup semi-final is a step in the right direction. It is the performance that worries me. Specifically the offensive performance, the goalkeeping of Alex Bono was stellar and, excepting a few wonky seconds at the end, the defending was solid. 

I am in the camp of wary respect for the Columbus Crew. It is not the first time this season where I have noted the gulf between Toronto and their opponents when it comes to having attacking players who are able to create the space to take a shot. I am not one who goes scrambling for the stat sheet to support my take on the game, but in this area I think it reflects the heart of Toronto's problems of late. They have been shut out now two games in a row, both home and away. I was willing to describe the quarter final home game as other than a clean sheet for NYRB, but the two disallowed goals were an own goal and a direct free kick. Neither were shots taken by midfielders in open play.

So here is my look at the gulf last night. Columbus midfielders showing up on the shot stat sheet would be Artur (1), Meram (1), Santos (4) and Higuain (3). I think it is a reflection that Federico Higuain is hanging up his boots and last night was probably his last game in Columbus. A few years ago, a game with Higuain having three shots would have been a Crew victory.

On the Toronto side you have the stunning situation of Delgado, Osorio and Bradley combining for a total of 0 shots. (Vazquez (2), Hasler (1) indicates some shots from TFC midfield
I know that it is a wonky comparison. Michael Bradley was in such a defender mode, sometimes holding midfielder, sometimes even playing semi-sweeper.

But my tactical point is that midfielders who shoot, who do more than seek out and feed strikers actually stretch defenders out of position and create opportunities for all. See Columbus last night. Their late addition of striker Kekuta Manneh saw him take two shots in 12 minutes of play. One of those shots was taken in a near impossible amount of space, created on the fly turning into the approach of Michael Bradley. Full credit to Alex Bono, but the attack of the Crew midfield made Manneh's late contribution possible.
A wise friend and long time fan of TFC had a great point watching the game last night. She said that Toronto is expecting Ricketts to be a counter attacking lone striker and yet they are forcing him to come back further and further and getting the ball to him almost in the shadows of his own net. That is a lot of territory they are expecting him to cover all alone.
Although bringing back Altidore and Giovinco for the home game will create much more than last night's "wing and a prayer" Ricketts lone striker mode, I still maintain that the invisible attacking contribution of TFC's midfield makes it tougher for the forwards. Giovinco probably leads the MLS in shots taken over the last three years, but that strategy needs a playoff tweak.

So if Coach Vanney was asking my opinion after the 1st leg on how to approach the 2nd leg, it would go like this.
Go for a blaze of glory. Tell your team that if they end up losing their chance at a repeat MLS Cup appearance because of a 5-5 score, then so be it.
That exciting, attacking football is what made TFC 2017 a season to remember, a historic season, a "thrill a minute" season with an unbeaten record at home until the CNE and a force to be reckoned with on the road.
That a 0-0 score against Columbus reminds us all far too much of a 0-0 score after extra time against Seattle last December. We know that defending steps up in the playoffs and MLS refs can put their whistles away. So quit trying to squeak your way back to that moment where Seattle beats you on penalty kicks.
 Right now Toronto FC are almost in a "next goal wins" situation. Especially if it is another tight game without goals. The longer Columbus can hold TFC off (and remember Columbus held off Atlanta in Atlanta, Crew keeper Zach Steffen proved he can be the diffence in a tough game. TFC gave him the night off in Columbus) the happier they will be.

You bench Osorio, telling him that his lack of shooting is the sole reason. He has defended well, played solid positionally, his passing varies and his ability to hold onto the ball in traffic can be a concern, but he creates no space for himself and he takes no shots. Until he grasps the formula, take shots = win Cup, he is a late game sub for tired legs. 
I say bring back Jay Chapman, either as starter or on bench.
Threaten Marky Delgado with the same treatment as Osorio. Until he understands take shots = win Cup, his spot on the field could be taken by Cooper, Chapman, Hasler.
As for the back line, I think you start Mavinga, Moor, Hasler again, but Zavaletta deserves playing time and I would replace Moor with Hagglund in the second half should goals be needed. Nick Hagglund for the win.
So in summary, TFC fans can not look to the return of Altidore and Giovinco as the cure all for what ailed Toronto last night. They go into the game with the "everybody shoots, everybody scores" approach and the blaze of glory.

I can remember well the feeling of that cold November 2016 night. Remember that long before the peak of victory, Montreal was able to grab the first goal, that important away goal. Don't let Columbus into the contest in any way.
Now let me gather my thermal underwear for next Wednesday's game by the lake.

TFC are 90 minutes away from playing for this...

After last night, I fear they are working towards this...

Monday, November 6, 2017

Bad cop and flat tire on the road to MLS Cup - TFC 0 NYRB 1

Have you ever travelled down to BMO Field with a nagging sense of dread? There is something about November that contributes to an unsettled feeling. TFC playoff games are still a new contribution to a lifetime of November chilling rain and the feelings of loss and a need to ward off the dark cold.

I felt that the TFC -NYRB game could go wild in a number of ways. Even with that premonition, it was a horribly unpredictable mud wrestle of a slugfest. Two TFC goals disallowed! A red card to Jozy Altidore (and Snidely Whiplash, I mean Sacha Kljestan of the NYRBs)! A weird long shot deflection goal for NYRBs. Both Bradley and Giovinco get yellow cards for protesting!
Is it possible for the entire fan base and most of the province to be issued yellow cards for protesting? I would wear that one proudly.

Here I am blogging Monday morning. I thought I needed to cool off before pounding the keyboard. Still steamed though.

A Sunday afternoon  that was was plenty ugly. I think that NYRB provided some of the ugly. Their tactics were based on size and grit when defending. However the refs provided most of the ugly, chiefly head ref Chris Penso, with special mention of the VAR Ted Unkel. Clearly a man fully thrown off by the switch back to standard time.

VAR ref Ted Unkel inaction yesterday

The non-call against Giovinco earlier in the first half when he was brought down in the box was the turning point and the start of the ref losing control of the game (imho). NYRB played physical against Seba Giovinco all game. How did NYRB defender Long not get a yellow for persistent fouling in the second half? Giovinco's yellow was a reaction to the third or fourth takedown. It was interesting to me that the MLS highlights did not include the Giovinco being fouled in the box moment. It was shown on the stadium screen at half time - looked from that angle that a NYRB defender knees Giovinco in the left side of his torso to bring him down. Would love to see that again.

TFC go through to the next round, meeting the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference two leg final. To those unclear on TFC losing yesterday but still advancing - the total score after two games with NYRB was 2-2, but TFC had the tie breaker having scored two goals in NY over NY scoring one in Toronto. The away goal tie breaker is a TFC fans' best friend today.
Mark Tuesday November 21st on your calendar. That is the night of the game in Columbus.
Something has to be done about this stupid playoff schedule. The international break is too wide and arrives at the wrong time. The MLS Cup being played on December 9th seems incredible when we already know the final four competing on November 6th.
Stay tuned, keep kicking and check your thermal underwear collection and monitor your blood pressure medication.
Next game at BMO Field Wednesday November 29th vs Columbus Crew.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

On the road to MLS Cup - game 1 - NYRB 1 TFC 2

And so we return to playoff footy... with a strategic victory at a stadium where victories have been mighty scarce in TFC history.

get out much, NYRB fans?

This was the first MLS Cup playoff game for TFC since that (shudder, shudder) Cup final disaster versus Seattle last December. When you consider that the recent season was a record breaking Supporter's Shield winning campaign, you could have had a hunch, going into this first leg game at New York Red Bull Arena, that TFC were due for a letdown effort.

Instead Toronto FC had enough attacking skills, enough full team defending and enough top level goalkeeping to defeat NYRB in this first leg game. 
The Red Bulls had opportunities, mostly in the second half, but Alex Bono was more than up to the task. The only Red Bull goal was a penalty kick after a bad moment of defending at the end of the first half. It gave NYRB hope going into the second half. Based on most of the first half play, it might have been hope they did not deserve. You had to expect something from the home team in this arena seldom kind to TFC.

Toronto was up to the task of defending and the rougher play and stronger play of NYRB as they attempted to get into the game. How Felipe did not at least earn a yellow for the hip check of Vazquez, I will never understand. Hagglund in for the injured Drew Moor was a forced substitution that paid off. I know that it is unfair to Osorio (in terms of offensive skills) when he comes on for an ailing Vazquez, but Osorio was a solid contributor. If I am going to highlight the TFC subs, special praise for Cooper. His ball hog antics were perfect for killing off a game to ensure victory. If this means that we can look forward to a return to playoff prominence for midfielder Cooper, all those summer time ball give aways will be forgiven...

This blogger was guilty throughout the second half of thinking that Seba Giovinco was having an off night. Seldom seeing the ball, unable to draw fouls, physically dominated by Long of NYRB. Then it all went Giovinco in a flash. Shielding the ball as he dribbled into the centre of the field, Felipe (the NYRB player I have always loved to hate) made a lunge that went knee to knee in front of the ref. It was an athletic feat of Felipe's to foul with his knee and then in a micro-second raise his arms as a claim to innocence.
Then Giovinco turned on his super powers. His free kick went over the wall, another NYRB defender blocking that side and a diving keeper, and into the net. I would describe the New York crowd as stunned into silence. Too bad the crowd size was minimal. 
Just another day at the office for Seba Giovinco

Speaking of small crowds for a midweek playoff game, you read idle comments that the MLS would desire a NYCFC vs NYRB playoff matchup to highlight the game in the Big Apple. Maybe the small  Red Bull Arena crowd is an indication that soccer in New York needs such a boost. I suspect that the Eastern final will be Toronto vs Columbus, but that is based on season momentum (and Columbus looking blessed vs Atlanta). The NYCFC vs Columbus match up should be interesting. 
Yes, I am guilty of looking towards the next round now. I think that should TFC score the first goal at BMO Field on Sunday afternoon, NYRB is more likely to fold their tent, pick up red cards (Hello Felipe) and leak goals, than mount a mighty comeback.

See you Sunday.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Season sunset spectacular Atlanta United 2 Toronto FC 2

I was wrong, totally wrong about the last game of the 2017 season for Toronto FC in Atlanta.

I felt that it would be a game perfectly suited for playing the bench.  I figured it wise to save the starters from fatigue and injury. Let Atlanta dominate the B team and give them nothing to work on for possible playoff meetings. Play possum. Throw in the towel and avoid the distraction of playing for the points record. Let that huge Atlanta crowd have their day and possibly contribute to their peaking too early. I thought that the notion that playing the best Toronto 11 to get all in gear for the playoffs was bunk. I figured that they could iron out the kinks in the first leg of any playoff match-up.

Did I mention I was wrong? Thrilled to be wrong actually. Coach Vanney picked his starters (although Beitashour over Hasler was a surprise) and went for it. The record for points in a season, 69, belongs to Toronto FC. 20 wins, 9 ties and 5 losses. You look back over the season and can build a case for at least one tie that should have been a win and one loss that could have been squeezed into a tie.
That's how good this team has been this season.
Their determination today in Atlanta, twice coming back to tie a game, on the road before a record MLS single game crowd (71,874) was incredible. The two leg playoff format is designed for surprises. Remember last year Toronto and Montreal found a way to eliminate the two New York teams. So hold onto your hats. Nothing has been determined, all to play for...

Helping Jozy celebrate and grabbing a cold one

Well struck

Monday, October 16, 2017

Win Ugly TFC 1 Montreal 0

Small (but sweet) mission down, BIG mission ahead
The morning after the last home game of the 2017 season, I (a fan, a blogger, a shrinking old man) must take the time to accentuate the positive.
Toronto FC 2017 hoisted the Supporter's Shield on home field yesterday. They finished their home schedule with a record of 13 wins - 1 loss and 3 ties. That was a powerful performance.

Onto some random observations, in order to stay positive. I will get back to the game in a bit.
I am a huge fan of the 5 pm weekend start time. I could vote for a 4 pm start time too, but with yesterday's weather that would have meant a huge downpour would have hit the start of the game. So 5 pm wins. The best part of the 5 start time is that post game you can meet with friends and family for a rollicking dinner. It makes a good day, a great one.

I love what tuque day (sponsored by KIA) has become. It used to be a wonderful parting gift, a harbinger of the snowy season approaching and the time you were about to spend away from TFC. Now (fingers crossed and touching wood) it is a gateway to playoffs, a reminder that the games ahead will be chilly. The fact that TFC ended their home schedule with TWO hat give aways means everything to the fashion challenged and man I know I'm one.

Back to the game at hand (and sorry I can't stay positive for much longer)

Just what does Alex Bono have to do to be named "Man of the Match"? Score a goal? Sure, Jozy Altidore buried his chance and was the game winner, but most of the night it was Bono (and his goal posts) keeping Montreal from filling the net. Maybe Altidore needs the confidence boost after the Trinidad experience (the US Men's National Team was eliminated from World Cup 2018 participation by a loss in Trinidad), but Bono was the man according to an unscientific random sample of section 220.
Two weeks apart, due to the international break, and Toronto FC looked far too clunky, disconnected and disjointed versus the Montrealers. Sure, credit given for victory when only records and home field pride were at stake. Speaking of home field, sorry but the stadium share with those bloody afterthought Argos remains an issue. That flood of rain just before game time might have been too much for the pitch.

I will always hate the Argo intrusion into the National Soccer Stadium.

Victor Vazquez should be taking all TFC penalties during the playoffs. On a scale of difficulty, hitting two shots off the same post is up there.

Timing and cohesion and playing time are important. Yet, I would still prefer to play only the B squad for the final season game in Atlanta next weekend. Call it fatigue recognition, injury prevention or just giving Atlanta no recent awareness of the form of our starting 11. I say play Irwin in net, defenders Hagglund, Hernandez and somebody else, midfield should be Edwards, Endoh, Osorio, Cooper and Cheyrou, with Ricketts and Hamilton up front. Result far less important than rest. The beauty of the two leg playoff format is that TFC can chase cohesion in the away game and then have the home game to enhance it.

Season 2017 = no worries, MLS Cup playoffs 2017 = all worries. May we worry all the way to December. Still cheering...