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Scouting Toronto FC: A 3-man backline

Drew Moor headlines the new 3-5-2 backline under Vanney

As the regular season wound down, Greg Vanney transitioned his club away from a variety of 4-4-2 formations to a 3-5-2. In their 11 matches with this formation (seven regular season, four playoff) TFC is 7-3-1 and averaging two points a match. The shift from the 4-4-2 has yielded great results for Toronto and and the goals are flowing offensively, but this comes at the cost of leaving the backline exposed often, and in a variety of ways.

What the stats say:

At first glance it looks like the change has greatly benefited TFC defensively. In the eleven matches running a 3-5-2 they have dropped their GAA from 1.179 to 1.091. This includes playoff performances; their regular season GA averaged to an even 1.0. This is actually a negligible defensive improvement, however, with a difference like this over a full 34 game season likely yielding only one to two more points by allowing 3-4 less goals. The playoffs started out even better than expected, holding DC Philadelphia and NYCFC to a combined one goal over 270 minutes of play. Against Montreal, though, the wheels fell off, with holes being exposed repeatedly all over the place. The French Canadians put up five goals over the two matches and drove that average up to 1.20. The good news is that against teams that employ a style similar to Seattle (Montreal) the stats suggest that goals are there for the having.

How Toronto’s backline works:

With the switch in formations two fairly young CBs in former Sounder draft pick Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund flank MLS veteran Drew Moor. The trio is a mismatch of experience, youth, athleticism, and questionable speed. Moor is asked to play a bit like a pre-Beckenbauer sweeper; he will naturally slide out wide to either side to help if one of the wingbacks is not back, exposing his other partner. Moor is similar to Chad Marshall with his speed, and his positioning is noticeably lacking when having to decide how to support his young partners. Hagglund and Zavaleta each provide different skills and both can win headers, as can Moor, but they lack the speed to prevent wingers from running the channel.

Toronto uses Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour as attackers more than defenders, preferring to have them push wingers and fullbacks towards the middle, and thus narrowing the field. If they are pushed into the middle, there’s three talented CMs ready to bully opposing player around or force a pass back to a defender. It isn’t a “high press” in the traditional sense, but TFC looks to engage early and prevent build ups from occurring.

Break this midfield line, and the Zavaleta-Moor-Hagglund triumvirate weaknesses are truly exposed. Moor’s hedging towards the side of the more advanced wingback is helpful only if the alternate wingback is not so advanced that he can fill true defensive duties. In practice for Toronto, this has resulted in one of the centerbacks being isolated, susceptible to overload.

What happened against Montreal?

That plan of trapping the wingers and forcing the ball inside? Well, it doesn’t work if your midfielders are slow to the ball, and slow to adjust to defensive needs. Montreal, in both games of the series, were offered time and space in the middle of the field, allowing them to take advantage of openings in the attacking third. A smart counter-attacking team needs only small windows of each to be successful, and with Ignacio Piatti and Marco Donadel pulling the strings they found holes time and time again. What Montreal seems to have identified, in addition to questionable positioning, is that Toronto does not do scramble defense well.

To help facilitate this, Montreal combined a few tactics:

  • Utilize the target forward position: While Mancuso had the fewest touches of any Montreal starter in both legs, his positioning was key to pulling the defensive back line out of position and opening space for Donadel, Hernán Bernadello, and Patrice Bernier to play Piatti and Oduro in.
  • Spring the wingers into a 1v1: this worked most obviously with Oduro, who showed he is able to outrun any defender on the TFC backline. This was particularly successful because of Toronto’s inability to stop sustained possession on the defensive right, which kept Moor from shading too much against the fast break.
  • Play quickly into exposed areas: the space was there while Morrow and Beitashour were pushed far up the field; Montreal took it and ran. Particularly down the sidelines, Toronto fell victim to relatively long passes that skipped the midfield battles they rely on to slow play down and allow the defense to set.

Montreal did very little to force the game; pointless repeated crossing to identical runs was not the rule of the day. Like Floyd Mayweather, they attacked the inherent holes in Toronto’s structure by pulling and prodding them around.

Can Seattle score as effectively as Montreal?

In short, yes. Toronto’s shape will be a more aggressive version of what FC Dallas played in leg one in Seattle that ended 3-0. While that was a five-man backline, it played similar when the fullbacks decided to push forward. This Sounders team, meanwhile, is strikingly similar in how it uses roles to those employed successfully by Montreal.

  • Seattle has their own Mancuso with Nelson Valdez; his constant movement and effort should help create chaos in the Toronto back line.
  • Jordan Morris will be able to play the Oduro role and shred the defense; he may not be quite as fast (thats not something you get to say very often), but he’s certainly a better finisher. Joevin Jones provides a potential speed in attack on the opposite side. Toronto struggled with handling it on one side, can they handle it on both sides?
  • Nicolas Lodeiro and Andreas Ivanschitz are both more than capable of the creativity and service that Piatti and Donadel provided. Lodeiro’s movement adds an additional wrinkle for Toronto to try to figure out on the fly.
  • Alonso and Roldan are better attackers and defenders than Donadel, Bernadello and Bernier. While Toronto seeks to pressure midfield turnovers, both Seattle pivots are particularly difficult to dispossess, and have a knack for finding passing lanes even while under pressure.

Montreal’s aging team proved that you don’t have to be the fleetest of foot to succeed at counterattacking against Toronto, you just have to be smarter. Even if Seattle is under pressure for long stretches, the ability to counter attack or strike quickly on display against Dallas and Colorado should break apart the Toronto defense.

Who has the advantage?

Seattle’s strikers vs. Toronto’s backline: Seattle in a landslide. Zavaleta and Hagglund are both relatively inexperienced. Drew Moor is experienced but slow. All of them are still trying to figure out responsibilities in the band of three. The primary attackers of Valdez and Morris

Midfield battle: Seattle has the slight edge here. Alonso and Roldan should be able to overtake Cooper, Osorio, and Bradley. Add in a pinch of Lodeiro’s defense and Seattle should be able to create a turnover to attack while TFC is out of position. If not, Lodeiro’s comfort in tight spaces will be another plus.

Free kicks: Toronto’s defense has the advantage here. Even with the tall trees (Marshall and Torres) coming up for headers, Toronto is good in the air and likely better than the Sounders, who have struggled to create much with set pieces. Clint Irwin is similar to Zac MacMath in that he can be caught off his line; expect Lodeiro and Ivanschitz to shoot instead of cross any time they can.

Toronto’s defense, unlike Colorado’s, shouldn’t be feared. The Rave Green should respect what they are capable of - after all, they did manage to hold opponents to one goal over 270 playoff minutes at one point - but Sounders should have the confidence that Montreal’s attack did and bag a goal early and never look back.

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