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Toronto FC’s revamped defensive line played a part in holding New York City FC to a 7-0 aggregate score during the Eastern Conference two-leg semi-final. defender Justin Morrow (2) kicks the ball away from New York City FC midfielder Jack Harrison (11) during the second half at Yankee Stadium. Toronto FC won 5-0. (Derik Hamilton/USA Today Sports)
Toronto FC’s revamped defensive line played a part in holding New York City FC to a 7-0 aggregate score during the Eastern Conference two-leg semi-final. defender Justin Morrow (2) kicks the ball away from New York City FC midfielder Jack Harrison (11) during the second half at Yankee Stadium. Toronto FC won 5-0. (Derik Hamilton/USA Today Sports)

Toronto FC’s defensive shift was about mindset Add to ...

Several personnel changes helped turn Toronto FC from one of the worst defensive teams in Major League Soccer in 2015 to one of the best this season, but the key piece in building that wall was a change in philosophy.

“Right from the preseason we changed our mindset,” TFC head coach Greg Vanney said Friday, shortly before he gave his players the weekend off from their preparations for their MLS Eastern Conference final against the Montreal Impact “We said from front to back we’re going to be a better defending team. It wasn’t good enough the year before. We started in the preseason working on defending stuff.

“The year before, and I’ll take blame on that, I was thinking we’re bringing in these great attacking players, Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, we [already had] Michael Bradley, all these attacking guys, we need to be good with the ball. We need to be a good attacking team, we want to entertain, we want to do all these things. But we ended up leaking goals.”

Vanney’s heart was in the right place. He said he was thinking of the TFC fans, who had supported the team in great numbers through what was then eight seasons. But they had been rewarded with nothing but mediocrity.

The switch to an attacking game actually did produce an improvement in TFC’s performance. But only because of the team’s long acquaintance with last place in the league. By the end of the season, TFC allowed more goals than all but one MLS team.

Nevertheless, 2015 saw the Reds make the playoffs for the first time since Toronto joined MLS in 2007, thanks to all the goals scored by Giovinco, Altidore, et al.

However, then came the famous 3-0 embarrassment in the knockout round at the hands of the Impact. That drove home the point that championships in just about any sport are only won by teams that can defend as well as they attack.

“We entertained. We scored a ton of goals,” Vanney said. “But we weren’t consistent enough over the course of the year.”

Vanney, though, is far from the first coach to make that mistake. For a good example, look no further than New York City FC and its Patrick Vieira. NYCFC rode the second-highest goals total into the this year’s Eastern Conference two-leg semi-final, only to be humiliated 7-0 on aggregate by TFC.

It wasn’t just the fans Vanney was trying to please. He was also thinking about Giovinco and Altidore, who joined TFC in 2015.

“My thought was we have some very good attacking players, they’re going to want to have the ball, to attack,” he said. “It was getting them engaged and motivated. They were coming to a new club.”

Actually, Vanney’s come-to-Jesus moment occurred late in the 2015 season when the wins became harder as the defences tightened with the approach of the playoffs. “But we were still making too many mistakes in the back, whether they were individual or compounded mistakes,” he said.

The emphasis on defence for this season was not a change in philosophy so much as a return to Vanney’s usual thinking.

“My fundamental philosophy is built from the back, in terms of having a good solid back line, a good defensive group,” he said.

Then came the personnel changes in the off-season. Vanney and TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko wanted to add defensive veterans with playoff experience who were accustomed to being leaders.

Drew Moor, who anchors the back line, was signed as a free agent, as was right back Steven Beitashour, which ended a revolving cast at that position. Young players Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund were given more playing time on the back line. Underlining it all was the trade for Clint Irwin, a veteran goalkeeper who brought the necessary steadiness.

“I think there’s a good complement from back to front of players around each other,” Zavaleta said. “There’s something that’s working among the 11 players. We’re happy we found the right recipe at the right time.”

The next challenge for the defence is stopping Montreal’s star striker Ignacio Piatti. This will be similar to TFC’s work on New York City’s big scorer, David Villa, who was smothered by aggressive defensive coverage in the semi-final.

“[Piatti] is a very good one-[versus]-one player, similar to a couple of matchups we already had,” Zevelata said. “Not letting these attacking players get loose is an important thing for us. It’s going to start with the defensive pressure up front and then getting numbers around Piatti as quickly and as fast as possible because in open space he’s as good as it gets in this league.”

Ticket sales are going well for both legs of the conference final. Montreal has already sold more than 40,000 seats for the first leg Nov. 22 at Olympic Stadium.

The Reds already have an official sellout at BMO Field, but hope to use the temporary 6,500 end-zone seats that are in place for the Grey Cup.

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