Call it the curse of TFiS but another reviewed game ends in a scoreless draw. Toronto FC needed a win at home to roar back into the playoff race and Real Salt Lake had just come off a tough loss to Cruz Azul so the momentum seemed to be in the hosts favour but they couldn’t gain maximum points. Both sides lined up in a narrow formation, RSL in their familiar diamond shape while Preki opted for a 4-1-3-2 as opposed to the 4-3-1-2 he had been using recently, probably because of a lack of healthy (Barrett, Santos) or competent (Ibrahim, White) strikers which meant captain Dwayne De Rosario was deployed up front beside Mista.
From the off Toronto looked invigorated and Gargan’s trade mark long throws caused Salt Lake problems, Gargan himself hitting the bar after one of his throws caused confusion in Rimando’s box. Once the game settled down a bit it turned into what we expected, a narrow game congested in the middle. For Toronto Julian de Guzman was tasked with marking Javier Morales, Salt Lake’s most dangerous attacking player. Morales was invisible the whole match until he started drifting wide right in the later part of the second half to escape the Canadian’s marking. Saric, Labrocca, Nane, and Sanyang may be termed as defensive midfielders but none of them could have shackled Morales as de Guzman did.
The hosts were happy to play through the middle although they did not get much joy, they were after all playing two central midfielders and a full back ahead of de Guzman. Their strikers liked to drop deep, both De Rosario and Mista preferring the ball played to their feet so they could keep possession and try and create. Neither forward had any chance of beating Olave or Borchers in the air. Unfortunately for them no one filled the space they created, the midfield not comfortable in bombing forward. On the other hand RSL were countering well with great movement from everyone except Saborio. His strike partner, Espindola, seemed to do enough running for the two of them however. His pace and strength caused endless problems for the TFC backline.
It was no shock that the players with the most time and space on the ball were the full backs. TFC had Usanov going forward with some degree of success but at left back they had Nick Garcia, a right footed center back by trade with limited skill. Kreis seemed happy to give him almost unlimited time on the ball and Garcia didn’t offer much in the first half. On the opposing side of the pitch Beltran was fairly subdued but Wingert often got forward. Wingert played as in inverted left back but unlike Garcia he had the mobility and skill to get forward often, his wind aided long range effort forcing Frei into the best save of the half. Toronto’s chances came from their two most creative players, De Rosario and Mista, dropping deep to facilitate the offense. This caused the middle of the park to become too congested for the Reds and with the lack of skill in midfield Toronto were restricted to long range strikes.
At the start of the second half Preki made a change taking out Usanov for O’Brian White while switching to a 4-3-1-2 with De Rosario in the hole behind the two strikers. In theory this move made sense, it allowed a more physical presence up front to challenge Borchers and Olave whilst stretching the field for Mista and De Rosario. The problem with this is that it placed De Rosario right beside Beckerman. Whereas in the first half one of the center backs would mark him at the start of the move then be reluctant to follow him now De Rosario was automatically picked up by Salt Lake’s defensive midfielder.
Espindola continued to run and he caught TFC’s defense off guard and should have scored but for a poor finish. His running was dragging defenders everywhere and creating space that Saborio was unable to exploit. Espindola created another good chance within the hour mark when Morales’ audacious header was tipped wide.
De Rosario had been invisible for the first 15 or so minutes before he figured out that he needed to drift wide to find space. He often moved to the left to get a chance on the ball but he often found himself with no outlet. It was around this point Garcia started to get forward. Williams paid him no attention and Garcia waltzed into the middle of the pitch with the ball. In truth RSL were not pressing well all match but how Garcia walked into a shooting position with no one within 10 yards of him the whole time was inexcusable and Garcia forced a jumping save from Rimando. This earned TFC a corner which is where they looked most dangerous. They were struggling to create from open space all match and Salt Lake had a real tough time dealing with red shirts in the box on corners and throw ins.
Meanwhile Wingert was continuing to be Salt Lake’s most dangerous man and he became even more dangerous when Will Johnson came on and played on the left side of the diamond. Johnson is simply a better player than Grabavoy and he and Wingert caused Toronto’s right side problems, not only because of their skill but because, contrary to what many believe, Labrocca is not a defensive midfielder. Labrocca is great at keeping possession and in the middle of the park is positionally aware but he is not a ball winner by any means. RSL could have won the match with two strikes from the left wing, both Wingert and Johnson hitting the frame of the goal.
In the end Toronto FC looked listless in open play, the only times they seemed to threaten were from set pieces. Real Salt Lake got men forward well and showed much more quality on the ball, their midfield just simply being more skilled than Toronto’s. Preki was forced to play an attacking midfielder up front alongside a player who, at this point in his career, is more of a 10 than a 9, along with three central midfielders and a full back as his midfield four. Toronto simply do not have the players and depth to seriously challenge in the MLS and until they do we will not know how good of a manager Preki really is.