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Scouting Report: Freezing out the Toronto FC offense

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The Reds’ powerful offense faces down Seattle’s soul-crushing defense. Only one can survive.

MLS: Toronto FC at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Building on yesterday’s look into Toronto’s defensive structure, tactics, and weaknesses, today we’ll dig into their offensive game and what it’ll take to stop it.

How Toronto sets up

For a team that led the league in goals, TFC’s offensive setup is surprisingly sparse. Nearly two-thirds of their 77 goals came via Jozy Altidore, Giovinco, Victor Vazquez, and Justin Morrow (about 40% alone came off the foot of Altidore and Giovinco). Primary assists are an even smaller cluster, almost entirely coming from one of the first three; but, widen to secondary assists, and you see a greatly increased group of contributors. The devil is always in the details; they may rely on a small group to score, but the goals are almost always a team effort.

The obvious parts of the structure are Altidore and Giovinco up top, Vazquez sitting marginally offset behind them (though often interchanging this position with Giovinco). Right channel play comes from either of Jonathan Osorio or Marky Delgado, who offer more traditional shuttler options.

While the former offers a steadier hand, Osorio also doesn’t go forward in the same threatening way, nor does he support the attack quite as well. Delgado, though, is struggling to replicate his regular season form in the playoffs (I encourage you to take a read through Waking The Red’s look at Delgado’s playoff performance linked above), and Toronto’s offensive threat level hasn’t pushed past “elevated” very often as a result. Which selection Greg Vanney goes for will tell us a lot about what his attentions, intentions, and expectations are for the match.

For Toronto, though, the offense starts near the back, where Michael Bradley likes to do his best impression of a laser-sighted t-shirt cannon and spray balls deep and wide. He does a good job of it, and just as he’s the key to opening up the defense, he’s the first place to look to start shutting down the offense.

How they play

An interesting stat exists: Toronto, the highest scoring team in league history, was just 17th in key passes per match. Dive further in, and according to Whoscored.com they rank towards the top in both long key passes and throughball assists.

This is certainly not to say that long passes are the preferred methodology, but they do seem to be the most successful at creating real danger.

Once the ball is moving up-field their focus is to drive hard at goal primarily via the left and the center. Altidore will sometimes drift right to provide a central line for Vazquez to play Giovinco into and to open space wide for the Atomic Ant to attack the remaining CB one-on-one. Alternatively, Morrow will drive hard up the left side, cutting in to the corner of the box and - as his goal totals show - often hitting dangerous balls at the face of goal.

Support from the balance of the team can be slow to arrive and will aim to maintain open spacing to continue to offer attackers the opportunity to take on defenders. If the initial attack fails and possession is maintained the ball will often be recycled deep to draw the midfield back up. This is going to be doubly true for a team that will need to find a way to contend with the most crushing CB duo in the league in Chad Marshall and Roman Torres.

Vazquez deserves a particular bit of focus as well - as a playmaker he’s among the most productive in the league. Undoubtedly the two guys in front of him have something to do with this, but it’s not possible to entirely write off his contributions. As a good reference point, he’s similar to Victor Rodriguez in what he brings to Toronto’s offense and how he complements while being a threat in his own right. Focus too much on his partners and he’ll take you to the cleaners.

How to break it down

The limited number of active participants in TFC’s attacking system means that taking out any particular portion has a larger than normal effect. It also means you don’t have to get crazy with the gameplans to counter it.

While Toronto does a good job of keeping width through the midfield, it disappears in the final third, aside from Morrow’s contributions. Force him to stay back and work on defense and you’ve trimmed most of Toronto’s offense to the middle of the park or...

You force Jozy to slide wide to provide width. This ends up being something he does from time to time regardless, but with limited alternative options his wide actions take on extra importance. If a team can regularly turn Altidore into a provider (Columbus, in particular, was able to do this) Toronto is left with few legitimate options for goal-dangerous offense.

When this has happened Bradley has often drifted higher to try to fill into the space underneath the forwards. Seeing him ranging forward isn’t necessarily the most enticing option, but it does force them to choose whether they’re willing to accept a reset of the attack or leave space and attempt to kill off any counter.

If you aren’t successful in pulling Bradley higher, you’ll want to limit his time on the ball deep, forcing horizontal and short passes, keeping him turned backwards, and ushering him towards a sideline whenever possible. This isn’t going to be an easy thing for Seattle to do; Bradley’s positioning means the attacking midfield band will have to spend energy tracking him throughout the match, and Toronto often looks to exploit this mismatch, or use it to wear the creatives down.

Of course, all of these are easier said than done. Toronto’s talent and skill level has routinely been enough for them to succeed even when teams achieve many of these. Giovinco and Altidore’s ability to create a magical moment in the midst of otherwise poor matches has to be respected, and means that no matter how successful you are at executing, there’s no rest until the final whistle blows.