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.