Canada 2 – 0 USA: Herdman makes multiple brave decisions, all of them pay off

Canada produced a stunning display to defeat their southern neighbours for the first time in over three decades, and while the effort on display deserves a lot of the praise there were also multiple tactical decisions that led Canada to a more than deserving victory.

John Herdman abandons 4-3-3 for a narrow 4-4-2

Herdman has shown a natural disposition to playing a 4-3-3, both with his time with the men’s national team and the women’s side, but against the visiting Americans he opted for a narrow 4-4-2 that he referred to as a “box” after the match.

Canada 2 - 0 USA_15Oct2019
Fraser came on for Kaye after his early injury. Interestingly, Kaye was playing inside right before his departure. David and Davies both played either channel.

This surprising shape had a lot of different effects on the match. First, it opened up the wings for both sides. The United States had only one player providing width in right back DeAndre Yedlin, and while he got forward often, his crosses were dealt with easily by Canada. Daniel Lovitz rarely got forward, while Christian Pulisic often came inside. Jordan Morris was not playing on an inverted wing as he is right footed, but the nature of his game is so direct that in practice he did play as an inverted winger.

For Canada, they also had their width supplied by their right back, Richie Laryea. Laryea also got forward often, but he was much more reluctant to send in crosses and tried to combine with the forwards. Kamal Miller ventured forward at times, but played much more defensively.

Canada in attack

Where Canada got their joy in attack was when they were able to get their strikers isolated with the American’s centre backs. Aaron Long is a decent defender in space, but Tim Ream simply doesn’t have the legs to deal with Alphonso Davies or Jonathan David when asked to defend high up the pitch. When the opportunity arose, Canada would ping the ball into a channel and ask one of their strikers to beat the opposition centre back, most notably when Davies tracked down a long ball after spotting the American defender a five metre head start, before cutting back and earning his side a corner. It was a simple play that was able to be executed because of the way the sides lined up.

When the USA retreated in their shape and began their press, Canada was forced to go long. Their outball here was, in fact, winning the second ball. Neither Davies nor David were going to win the initial header, but often Canada would be first to pick up the scraps. While it certainly looked like Canada were up for this match moreso than their more illustrious counterparts, they also had more players around the second ball because of the way they lined up. Jonathan Osorio and Scott Arfield were constantly in position to either pick up the second ball or challenge for it, and that directly led to both of Canada’s goals.

Canada in defense

Herdman’s shape allowed Canada to clog up the middle when they did have to retreat into their shape. It allowed all four of their midfielders to be in position to press and win the ball in dangerous areas of the pitch if the US became loose with the ball. This was only effective because of Osorio and Arfield, Canada’s two smartest team pressers. Both players know where and when to press, and both had important roles in defending not only the middle of the pitch but also wide areas.

Canada pressed effectively for the most part. It was clear that one of David or Davies, whoever happened to be closer, was tasked with picking up Michael Bradley when the US had the ball. One of the US’s simplest forays forward was when neither Canadian striker picked up Bradley, and the American midfielder received a simple ball and was allowed to stride forward 30 odd metres untouched, deep into Canada’s half.

Another tactic Canada used was to have their forwards press the American’s centre backs, while Samuel Piette or Liam Fraser would simultaneously step up to press Bradley. This also caused a problem for Canada once when it was not executed correctly — the players were late to switch up their press and the US exploited it for a dangerous ball in behind.

That being said, the home side’s press was definitely an effective tactic. However, these examples illustrate how dependent on each other the Canadians are. To be fair, the best pressing teams must press as a team, and an individual pressing outside the system is ineffective, but Herdman’s strategy is so ambitious that one small mistake can easily lead to a dangerous chance.

The best chance for the visitors actually came from winning a rare long ball from Zack Steffen, and Gregg Berhalter has to decide how pragmatic he wants his side to be. Wanting to keep the ball and calmly pass through a high pressing team is laudable, but it takes time to learn how to do so as a team which is a luxury that international sides do not have. Frankly, it is uncertain if the US have the talent to do so, even against so called weaker CONCACAF sides let alone top international teams.

USA cannot answer, Herdman makes effective subs but doesn’t need to change game plan

Canada was the better side throughout the match and Berhalter simply did not have the personnel to get his side into the game. The truth is that his eleven contained multiple limited players, and the substitutes he brought on were well below the level required to impact the game. Herdman muzzled the opposition and put his players in a position to succeed, and Berhalter could not change the players or the tactics to get his side going.

Herdman’s decisions, from who he started, to who he subbed in, to how they lined up and how they pressed, were all correct. He is known as a meticulous planner and his initial tactics are always thought out and his plan is clear. This is a positive thing, but we have seen in the past that he can be late to switch things up mid-match. Herdman did make three brave substitutions that all turned out, but he never really had to change the team’s style because they were always on top. He should not be penalized for a brilliant Plan A, but the question is does he have an effective Plan B when the initial tactic doesn’t work? Canadian fans are hoping that they won’t have to find out anytime soon.

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Canada 2 – 3 Haiti: Individual mistakes compounded by Herdman’s rigid planning

Canada stormed out to a 2-0 lead before half time and looked a safe bet to advance to their first Gold Cup semi final since 2007. Haiti kept the faith in the second half and punished a lackluster Canadian side to keep their improbable run alive.

Canada continue with their 4-3-3/4-4-2, but with Hutchinson in midfield

John Herdman started with Atiba Hutchinson in the defensive midfield role and Alphonso Davies at left back. The rest of the squad was as expected. They played the same shape as they did against Martinique and Cuba, and against Mexico after the second half substitutions.

This shape has three distinctly different functioning central midfielders. Hutchinson was the first function midfielder, dropping between the centre backs in possession and forming a bank of four in midfield when out of possession. Scott Arfield was the second function midfielder, driving from deep with the ball from his inside right position and connecting the midfield with the forwards in transition, while lining up alongside Hutchinson when defending. Jonathan Osorio was the third function midfielder, trying to get involved in the final attacking move and pressing the Haitian centre backs high from his inside left position.

After a shaky opening ten minutes, Canada began to dominate. Haiti was pressing high but Canada began to deal with it, and Haiti’s high line was exposed multiple times. Lucas Cavallini was even able to somehow get in behind a comical offside trap to extend Canada’s lead. Herdman’s side also gained a lot of joy from counter pressing the Haitians, as they had multiple players high up the pitch to try and win the ball back when they lost it. Canada went into the half up two, and looked the much more likely side to score the third goal of the match.

Kaye comes on for Osorio and Canada sits back

Canada started the second half well, but Milan Borjan’s error breathed life into Haiti. Herdman responded with what seemed like a planned substitution for this scenario, as Mark-Anthony Kaye came on for Osorio and Canada switched to a 4-1-4-1 without the ball. Kaye sat back and didn’t press the Haitian centre back, preferring to create a bank of four ahead of Hutchinson.

This substitution changed the game for the worse for Canada. No longer were they in a position to press and counter press effectively. Haiti had time to pick out long diagonal balls, which was their game plan both in transition and in possession. Osorio had been one of Canada’s most dangerous players, and Canada should have been looking to step on Haiti’s throats in the second half. It also isolated Cavallini more, who was frankly miscast in this match despite scoring a goal. He wasn’t  huge threat to run in behind, and when Canada did sustain intricate moves around the box, they often died on his boot.

Herdman too systematic

Another egregious individual error, this time from a long diagonal ball, leveled the match. A third quick attack that could have been stopped by better individual defending gave Haiti the lead. Herdman responded by bringing on Ashtone Morgan for Cavallini, a tacit admission that the Mexico based striker was not clicking with the rest of the side, and going back to the high pressing 4-4-2.

Herdman has often been described as meticulous and well prepared. These are positive adjectives, but in the quarter final it was apparent that those traits can lead you to being too rigid. The first example was the Kaye sub for Osorio. In a vacuum such a substitution makes sense; the opposition has gotten within one goal so you bring on a more defensive midfielder for an attacking one and move to a defensive shape. But the first Haitian goal was scored against the run of play, there was no real pattern to it, and the so called attacking midfielder that was subbed off was very effective defensively by pressing high and stopping attacks before they started. The switch to the low pressing 4-1-4-1 seemed like Herdman was running the “only up one goal with 30 minutes left” program without looking at the game itself.

The other example was how the side lined up when chasing the game with 15 minutes left. As they switched back to the high pressing 4-4-2, Arfield took up the Osorio role as the attacking midfielder. That makes sense, but he did it from the same inside left position as Osorio while Kaye went into the inside right position that Arfield vacated. Both players were in inverted positions and not as comfortable. To be unable to play a more flexible and natural formation depending on which players are out there is a sign that the strategy is too rigid, and strategies that are too rigid are extremely vulnerable when Plan A fails.

Conclusion

This is a devastating loss for Canada, but they were well on top for most of the match. Two calamitous individual errors got Haiti level, and from there the changes by Herdman compounded those errors. Questions need to be answered, the two most obvious ones being: 1) Should Davies play left back? and 2) Does Cavallini fit the style Canada want to play? If the answer to both, as they appeared to be against Haiti, is “no”, then an obvious solution exists.

The other big consideration is, how flexible is John Herdman? His side were clearly well drilled, and the players were very willing to complete their given assignments. It was obvious with and without the ball, on throw ins and on set pieces, that each player had a plan to execute. But when the game script gets away from Canada, especially after one change has already been made, is there an effective Plan B?

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Thoughts after Canada’s 4-0 win over Martinique and looking ahead

Canada posted an impressive looking 4-0 result over former bogey side Martinique to open their Gold Cup campaign. In truth it was John Herdman’s first real test as manager of the men’s national team, and Canada was pushed in the first half before outclassing the Caribbean side in the second. There is a danger in over-extrapolating from one match, especially against a side nowhere near the levels of Mexico, the U.S.A, Costa Rica, or Jamaica, but there were some interesting tidbits from the match.

Canada a classic 4-3-3 with the ball

Canada vs Martinique, GC1R2019.jpg

The first thing to note about Canada was their shape. When they had the ball, they were in a (what is now considered a standard) 4-3-3 shape with Samuel Piette regularly dropping between the centre backs to give the full backs the opportunity to push forward. This gave Canada three relatively good passers out the back in Piette, Derek Cornelius, and Atiba Hutchinson. All three are extremely capable of breaking lines, sometimes multiple in one pass. Mark-Anthony Kaye did so a couple times from his left back position as well, which is not wholly surprising considering he is naturally a central midfielder. Even Milan Borjan played forward central passes at times to break Martinique’s press. When everything was flowing, it was working well, though there were a couple times Canada was nearly caught out in a manner similar to how Jonathan David scored the opener.

While Piette was acting as a first function midfielder, being the initial outlet and spearheading attacks when in possession, Scott Arfield and Jonathan Osorio were playing as clear second and third function midfielders, respectively. There is a logical, archetypal balance to this midfield trio from Canada. Piette stays back and plays smart passes forward, Arfield runs and connects lines, and Osorio combines high in tight spaces with forwards, wingers, and overlapping full backs. This is not to say that Canada were fluid for 90 minutes and had no problem breaking down Martinique, but the plan is obvious and should work against sides of this caliber.

Finally, the attack was lead by Jonathan David who got the start ahead of Lucas Cavallini. There is a decent chance that David got the start because Cavallini was being rested for Mexico, but the Belgian-based attacker constantly dropped into pockets between defence and midfield to cause problems for Martinique. Often deployed as an attacking midfielder at club level, David has no problem finding space to meet the ball, while also having preternatural composure in front of goal for a teenager. His ability to play as a sort of nine-and-a-half or on the wing makes him invaluable for Canada, especially in a tournament setting where depth is paramount.

Canada press with a 4-4-2 without the ball

Teams who deploy a 4-3-3 will often drop into a 4-1-4-1 without the ball when the opposition resets. However, Canada often looked like a 4-4-2 when Martinique had possession among their back line. Piette would push up beside Arfield to form a bank of four while Osorio pushed up high, often in line with David. The first goal for Canada was off a turnover just outside the box; though it wasn’t a direct result of Canada’s pressing, it was a good example of high Osorio and David started their wall.

Osorio has improved dramatically over the past five years, perhaps most impressively his pressing and work rate. Whether that should be attributed to increased experience, stamina, or confidence (or most likely, a mixture of all three), the fact is that he is much more playable in any situation than he was in the past. The Toronto Raptors just won their first NBA Championship by creating a roster of versatile players that, even if they were having an off night offensively, could still contribute defensively and stay on the floor. Osorio, along with other central midfield options like Kaye and Russell Teibert, are all able to effectively press when in structure. Again, there is an easy to see inherent logic to the creation of the squad.

Defensively, Canada did have lapses, especially in the first half. Most of these lapses could be considered individual rather than structural. Marcus Godinho and Piette underhit back passes, Kaye was caught out, and Hutchinson was unceremoniously turned near half. Digging a little deeper, however, one has to wonder if Kaye and Hutchinson’s mistakes can be considered anomalies, or if they are they likely to be a trend if they are continued to be deployed out of position.

Kaye did some interesting thing going forward and even almost scored a goal. However, he looked unsure or uninterested a few times while defending. Hutchinson looked ok for the most part when completing traditional defensive tasks, but to be caught out against Kevin Parsemain which lead directly to a break away is a cardinal mistake. The questions are: 1) Is that a mistake that Hutchinson will continue to make?; and 2) Are all the fires Hutchinson puts out with his intelligence reading the game and calmness in possession a net benefit? Hutchinson does a lot of positive things that a lot of centre backs simply can’t do; the issue is, they are less salient. Against a weaker side it doesn’t really matter and his ability to keep the ball and start attacks is a fairly obvious boon. Against stronger sides it has to be asked what style Canada will play and where players like Kaye, Hutchinson, Osorio, and David fit.

Individual player decisions against Mexico

Cavallini looks poised to start against Mexico which makes sense on the surface: he is more experienced than David and plays in the Mexican league. But Cavallini is less mobile than David; he is a less effective presser and is virtually no threat to run in behind a high Mexican line. One virtue Cavallini has against a high line, and this was seen last Gold Cup versus French Guiana, is that he can be an effective post player. Recall how he pinned down the French Guiana defender before rolling the ball into the path of Alphonso Davies for the winger’s first goal. It may seem overly simplistic, but Cavallini being a left footed post player is perfectly positioned to receive long balls into feet and play in Canada’s left winger on the counter attack.

This means that a goal scoring threat on the left wing is ideal, and Davies fits the bill the best as a counter attacker. While David and Junior Hoilett would offer inverted options on that side, neither is as quick or powerful as Davies (which is impressive, considering how quick they are). The idea of playing Davies as a left back completely neuters him. While we have seen attacking full backs pin back wingers and help dominate a flank, the fact is that Canada will see so little of the ball against Mexico that such a tactic is untenable. Many people have wondered how Canada can get their best eleven players on the pitch, but that isn’t always a rule you need to follow. However, one rule that should always be followed is that you should put your biggest goal threat in an attacking position.

While Osorio played as a second forward presser against Martinique, it doesn’t seem prudent for Herdman to play so progressively against Mexico. Look for Canada to play more of a 4-1-4-1 when defending. Osorio may very well start, but it would also make sense to start either Kaye or Hutchinson in midfield and go with more natural defenders in the back four. While Mexico is traditionally thought of as a quick, mobile, and technical side, they have a powerful and predatory striker in Raul Jimenez who seems like a better match up for someone like Doneil Henry.

Conclusion

This is Herdman’s first real test and our first real opportunity to see how his Canada will play going forward. Things will change and evolve going forward based on player form and availability, but how Herdman approaches Martinique versus how he approaches Mexico will give us a glimpse of how progressive he wants to be. While a bunker and counter style makes sense, if Canada truly believes they are a different side to the ones that came before then maybe they are expansive and play with Mexico. With a match against lowly Cuba next, perhaps this is the time to see just how good they are.

Pacific FC 2 – 2 York9 FC: Brennan switches to a back four to deal with Pacific’s press

An interesting match ended even after York9 FC fought back from a two goal deficit thanks to a formation change and set pieces.

Both teams press high

Each side had a game plan of pressing their opposition high up the pitch and they both did it effectively. Pacific FC, in particular, used their wingers to target York9’s outside centre backs. The purpose of this press wasn’t simply to force York9 into long balls, but to win the ball very high up the pitch in dangerous areas, which the hosts managed to do a few times in the first half.

Pacific vs York, 20190518
Fisk and Hernandez pressed Gogarty and Springer when York had the ball. Both sets of wide players swapped through out the first half.

Jim Brennan’s side also pressed high and they found much success, as well. Pacific FC tried to play through the middle at times, but that area was often bypassed in favour of long clearances in order to avoid losing the ball, although some of the clearances from Pacific’s centre backs were poor and led to good chances for York9.

This led to an odd first half where both teams were more dangerous without the ball, and where the midfield areas was continually bypassed. There were rare times where the press was avoided which led to good chances for either side. For York9 it was when Dan Gogarty moved forward into space after an over zealous attempt to win the ball to play a one-two, while for Pacific FC it was when Mark Village found Jose Hernandez in a pocket between centre back and full back. The latter opportunity led to the Ben Fisk goal and was remarkably simple: one pass from a winger to another after receiving it from his keeper.

Centre backs for either side unable to break through

A big problem for both teams was the fact that none of their centre backs were comfortable moving the ball forward. While credit must be given to the way both teams pressed, none of the five centre backs on the pitch are of the ball playing variety. For Pacific FC this is a problem because a strength of theirs appears to be their technical midfield, especially with Noah Verhoeven forward as the attacking midfielder. For York9 this is such an issue because they play with three centre backs, and if none of them can pass effectively or step forward when in possession, they are effectively playing down a man (or three) when they have the ball.

Both sides had big target men which may have been expected to relieve the pressure, and while both had their moments resetting play, the truth is that the pressing was so intense in the first half and the passing so poor, that neither striker was able to get near the ball much of the time.

York9 switch to a back four at half time

Midfielder Emilio Estevez came on for central defender Justin Springer at half time, and York9 immediately dealt with Pacific’s press much better. Brennan changed the shape from a 3-4-2-1 to a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1, and Pacific’s wingers now no longer had an obvious man to press.

York 2nd Half, 20190518.jpg
How York lined up in the second half. Abzi came on for Porter part way through to give a more natural left winger.

Often times managers will decide on a back three or a back four based on the number of attackers the opposition uses, with the idea being that you want a spare man at the back. If the opposition plays with two strikers then you may play with a back three, while if they play with one striker and two high wingers, then you play with a back four. This spare man can also be used in possession, as York9 showed in this match. Whereas in the first half both Fisk and Hernandez essentially man marked Springer and Gogarty while Marcus Haber lined up against Luca Gasparotto, in the second half the Pacific wingers had to pick up the opposition’s full backs, which left one of the centre backs free against Haber.

This shape also had other benefits for York9. Wataru Murofushi was able to drop deeper to pick up the ball while putting him closer to Verhoeven when defending, and it allowed Manny Aparicio to also come deeper where he didn’t have to move outside the team’s shape to get on the ball. Probably the biggest ancillary benefit for the visitors was that it moved Rodrigo Gattas to a wider position on the right where he was appeared much more comfortable.

Conclusion

The match was a bit of a weird one in the first half where not a lot of traditional soccer was played due to each side pressing so effectively. What it did mean was that when a team did break the press of the other side then they often had a dangerous opportunity. It also meant that set pieces were going to be the best source of offensive chances for either team.

York9 FC played much better in the second half when they moved to a back four to deal with Pacific FC’s high press. This is encouraging because targeting York9’s centre backs when they have the ball seems like an easy plan against Brennan’s side. The fact that he has a plan B bodes well for his team going forward, and based on how the rest of the team functioned it is fair to wonder if it should be their plan A.

Pacific FC played with Noah Verhoeven as their attacking midfielder and he looked fairly dangerous near the opposition’s goal. The key will be getting him the ball in those areas as they often looked poor building from the back. Lukas MacNaughton, Ryan McCurdy, and even Mark Village (beyond the one pass to Hernandez that led to the second goal, admittedly) appear completely ineffective at moving the ball forward and splitting the lines. If Michael Silberbauer insists on playing this shape and style, and it certainly seems he does based on his decision making so far, he needs to find a better way to build from the back, else York9’s blue print of a high press will frustrate the islanders.

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Valour FC 0 – 2 Forge FC: Valour can’t deal with Forge’s pressing and counter-pressing

Forge FC thoroughly dominated another match, this time getting the result they deserved as they defeated Valour FC by two goals.

Forge FC press, Valour FC no obvious out ball

Valour vs Forge, 051719

Captain Kyle Bekker returned to the side and Forge FC continued to rotate players as Marcel Zajac and Daniel Kreutzen received starts on the left side for the visitors.

Rob Gale played with a back four, perhaps to counter Forge’s dynamic attack, but they were simply unable to deal with Forge’s pressing when in possession. The problem with this shape was that it made it even easier for Forge to press the hosts. While theoretically this should have left a centre back for Valour free, there was no obvious forward pass.  The 4-2-3-1 formation put Louis Beland-Goyette further away from the back line and didn’t allow him, or Dylan Sarcamento, to easily offer an outlet.

When Valour win the ball in their end, Forge immediately try to win the ball back

While Forge’s pressing was effective to prevent Valour’s attacks, the best source of Forge’s own attack was their counter pressing. Many times when losing the ball deep in their opponents’ half, the Hamilton outfit would immediately press the hosts and win the ball in advantageous positions. They did not do this all match, however, and were also happy to retreat into a rigid 4-1-4-1 when it was deemed necessary.

Skylar Thomas’ inability to pass forward compounds Valour’s problems

We have discussed Thomas’ strengths and limitations defensively when defending in space versus defending the box, but another big limitation was exposed in this match: his distribution. While Thomas actually strode forward impressively a couple of times to solve problems when being pressed effectively, he misplaced multiple forward passes, sometimes with little pressure on him. This was most apparent in the 33rd minute when he misplaced two passes in a row deep in his own half which led to a dangerous chance. Eventually he was punished in the second half when a poor pass was intercepted by the impressive Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson and played to Tristan Borges, who scored Forge’s second goal.

While Thomas had a poor game with the ball, he wasn’t put in a position to succeed. Valour FC played an expansive shape and didn’t give Thomas, or Jordan Murrell, obvious out balls when they had the ball deep in their half. The shape was one culprit, but so was the individual play of Beland-Goyette and Sacramento, who did not show enough desire to drop deep and help in the first phase of build up.

Conclusion

Forge FC have probably played the best soccer of any team this spring, even beyond the undefeated Cavalry FC. However, the results have not been kind to them, in part due to poor individual defending and bad finishing. Against Valour they were able to shelter the former by starting their defending high up the pitch. They have a glut of gifted attackers, including the most dynamic player in the league so far in Borges, so if they can synthesize their pressing as a defending and attacking tactic they can push themselves to the next level.

One of the most interesting, and effective, aspects of Valour’s game so far this season was their ability to get a number of players in the active playing area. Their compact shape helped get multiple men around the ball which allowed for intricate interplay in offense while providing a compact shape defensively. Against Forge, however, their inability to connect the different lines offensively was their biggest problem. The addition of Marcos Bustos has given them their best play maker, but they need to figure out how to get him the ball in dangerous places with other players around him.

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Super Saturday Tidbits and Team of the Weeks (Weeks 1 and 2)

Six of the seven CPL clubs played on Super Saturday to close out the first two weeks of the season. Every club has now played at least one match, and every club has at least one point. Here are three interesting tidbits from each match, followed by my Team of the Weeks.

HFX Wanderers FC 2 – 1 Forge FC

1. Kodai Iida starts and Wanderers start to press

Stephen Hart was understandably upset after their week one loss to Pacific FC. His side didn’t press or counter at pace. Against Forge FC, he deployed Iida from the start in a 4-2-3-1 and the hosts were much more aggressive. Iida was the lone bright spot in the opener for HFX and he continued his sharp play against Forge. He won, and took, the free kick that led to the goal and his constant motor allowed him not only to find spots to pick up the ball but also to press effectively. He and Luis Perea injected much needed life into the Wanderers attack, and Hart must now decide if he can effectively utilize Iida, Perea, and Juan Gutierrez in the same line up.

2. Giuliano Frano once again takes up midfield spot in possession

Frano started as a centre back against York9 FC in week one, but an early injury to Jonathan Grant pushed him to right back. In that position, he moved inside when his team had to ball to create an extra man in midfield, allowing Kyle Bekker to stay higher up the pitch. While it was effective against York9, against HFX the lane to Frano was often blocked by either Iida or Perea. This often led to congestion in the middle and Forge lost an obvious out ball. It will be interesting to see if Frano continues at right back when Grant returns, and what Bobby Smyrniotis does with his full backs going forward.

3. Triston Henry looks uncomfortable, unless he has the ball at his feet

Modern goalkeepers are asked to be comfortable on the ball, and Henry certainly has been through the first two weeks. Smyrniotis asks his team to keep the ball and the play out from the back, and Henry has been very good at doing so. However, he hasn’t appeared confident when defending his box, particularly on crosses. The Hamilton based side have a more than capable back up in Quillan Roberts, so it will be interesting to see what happens to that competition as the season progresses.

Cavalry FC 2 – 1 York9 FC

1. Both sides line up in a 3-4-3, but the similarities end there

The first half of this match was completely one sided, with the home team simply doing everything better than their visitors. Their centre backs were progressive in possession, their wing backs pinned York’s backwards, their midfielders won the ball and recycled possession, and their front three effectively pressed York’s back line while running the channels and providing an outlet. On the other side, York9 were poor in many aspects of the game, most notably with their three forwards refusing the pick up either the centre backs of the Cavs or their wing backs when the Calgary team had the ball. Caught in that no man’s land between the outside centre backs and the wing backs, Cavalry FC easily dominated the first period.

2. Jim Brennan must decide what his best central midfield grouping is

Due to a number of reasons, Brennan changed his entire central midfield grouping from week one to week two. The pairing of Ryan Telfer and Emilio Estevez was, to put it bluntly, a failure. Wataru Murofushi came on at half time and York9 looked much better as Telfer was pushed into a wide position. Manny Aparicio is Brennan’s captain and will almost certainly start every time he is available, but the rest of the grouping is up in the air. Telfer has never played as a central midfielder as a professional and doesn’t possess any of the obvious attributes required for the position. Estevez grew into the game as it wore on and York9 were able to press and possess the ball, and he provided a fine assist for their only goal. A Jekyll & Hyde performance from York9 FC leaves Brennan with questions on who he wants to play in the middle of the park, and with that what style he wants his team to play.

3. Nathan Ingham looks comfortable, except with the ball at his feet

Ingham once again made numerous saves to keep his team in the game, and looks especially confident coming out and closing down attackers. But for all his shot stopping virtues, Ingham constantly puts his side under pressure by either mis-kicking balls into touch or making ill-advised throws to defenders who have an opposition player nearby. Compounding this problem is the fact that none of the York9 centre backs are comfortable on the ball, so Brennan’s side are at a constant disadvantage. This was especially obvious against Cavalry FC whose defenders were confident not only in passing the ball forwards, but also in stepping to midfield when needed.

Valour FC 1 – 2 FC Edmonton

1. Rob Gale continues with his 3-5-2/lopsided 4-4-2, but switches Skylar Thomas and Jordan Murrell

Gale continued his interesting shape and made one personnel change, bring Dylan Carreiro in for Nicolas Galvis, which pushed Dylan Sacramento wide left. However, his most interesting change was playing captain Murrell in the middle of the back three and Thomas on the right. The most obvious reason for this change was to match up a certain player against the opposition’s lone striker. Pacific FC started Marcus Haber up front, whose tall and immobile physical profile matches up ideally with that of Thomas’. FC Edmonton started the small and quick Randy Edwini-Bonsu who is a better match up for the more agile Murrell. It will be interesting to keep tabs on how Gale matches up against certain lone strikers, and who becomes the spare man against Cavalry FC in their next match.

2. Valour’s shape allows them to pack numbers around the ball

Gale’s line up has a lot of moving parts, and one thing it does is that it always keeps a number of players around the ball. Numerous players end up playing multiple positions, and there always seems to be an extra Valour player in the active playing area. Moving forward, it will be interesting to keep an eye on whether they can continue to play this physically demanding system, especially in a league where depth appears to be at a premium.

3. FC Edmonton solid, if unspectacular

While Valour play a complicated system with many moving parts, the Eddies played a rigid 4-2-3-1 and relied on set pieces for both their goals. This isn’t to say they were poor, though they were outplayed for the first half of the game. Edmonton have many good, archetypal pieces: tall and strong centre backs, athletic full backs, pacy attackers, and a central midfield pairing that complements each other well with a destroyer and a passer. Every CPL manager seems to be preaching playing a proactive style, but solidity and cohesion can win a lot of matches, and Edmonton seem to have the personnel to sit a bit deeper and hit teams on the break.

Team of the Weeks

TotW, 1-2

Goalkeeper: Connor James (FC Edmonton)

Made a number of saves in the first half against Valour FC, and was confident in all aspects. Rushed out well, was fine with crosses, and was comfortable in possession. Only beaten by a penalty kick. One of a number of U Sports players to play well.

Right back: Diego Gutierrez (Valour FC)  *PLAYER OF THE WEEKS*

Extremely clever player who did well in both attack and defence. The only one tasked to provide genuine width for Valour FC, but he didn’t simply provide aimless cross after cross. Combined well with Josip Golubar and made dangerous runs of his own. Provided an assist in the opener and won the penalty in the second match.

Centre back: Hendrik Starostzik (Pacific FC)

The proverbial calming influence at the back. Deal well with the attacks of HFX, but to be fair the Haligonians did not seem in the mood to attack. Adept at defending the box and even popped up with a goal from a corner.

Honourable mention: Amer Didic (FC Edmonton)

Centre back: Joel Waterman (Cavalry FC)

Defended solidly with no obvious mistakes, but most impressive with the ball at his feet. Passed forward well, and confidently stepped forward with the ball and into midfield to give his team another dimension in possession. Both he and Dominick Zator will be key for Cavalry in their outside centre back positions.

Left back: Jose Escalante (Cavalry FC)

Athletic and clever going forward. Pinned back his opposite number on the wing and basically locked down the entire side for the first half. Had a number of crosses into the box, some of them dangerous. Provided a good delivery from a corner kick to set up the second goal.

Honourable mention: Blake Smith (Pacific FC)

Centre midfield: Noah Verhoeven (Pacfic FC)

Constantly demanding the ball with his movement in deep positions. Extremely confident on the ball, although he needs to be more pragmatic in specific situations. He always provided an outlet for his back line and solved numerous problems when in possession. Set up the only goal in their win from a corner kick.

Centre midfield: Josip Golubar (Valour FC)

Combined really well with Gutierrez and constantly moved his team forward. Always in and around the box, trying to be progressive with his variety. Adept at dribbling, passing, or shooting. Unlucky not to have more end product from his first two matches.

Honourable mention: Ramon Soria (FC Edmonton)

Right wing: Tristan Borges (Forge FC)

His performance against York9 FC was the most dynamic performance of the first two weeks. Extremely unlucky not to score in either match. Constantly moved to find space and even when his ideas didn’t come off he caused many problems with his movement and ambition. The best attacker of the first two weeks.

Attacking midfield: Kodai Iida (HFX Wanderers FC)

Mobile and clever in his two matches. The lone threat in their opener, and their best player in the second match. Not only the spark plug in attack with his lateral movement and confidence to drive forward, but the first line of defence with effective pressing.

Left wing: Kadell Thomas (Forge FC)

Two goals put him in the Team of the Weeks, although there wasn’t much competition for this position. Did ok overall, finding good positions to get into for his finishes. Forge FC desperately need a penalty box player to finish their intricate moves and he fit the profile in their first two matches.

Striker: Luis Perea (HFX Wanderers FC)

A good focal point for the Atlantic side who was obviously desperately missed in their visit to the Pacific coast. Decent movement and link up with Iida, and a calm finish put him in the Team of the Weeks. His physicality was also an asset in keeping the ball and when pressing

Honourable mention: Michael Petrasso (Valour FC)

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Pacific FC 1 – 2 Valour FC: Hosts try to isolate Thomas, but visitors’ interesting shape hangs on

Valour FC stopped Pacific FC from going five points clear as Rob Gale’s interesting hybrid shape did just enough to give the Winnipeg side their first ever victory.

VFC play a hybrid 5-3-2/4-4-2 shape and press effectively

In their first match, both Noah Verhoeven and Matthew Baldisimo enjoyed time on the ball in deep positions as HFX Wanderers FC showed no signs of pressing the British Columbian outfit. However, Gale’s men were much more proactive in their pressing and did not allow the two young midfielders to dictate the tempo of the game. Verhoeven coughed the ball up under little pressure early on in the first half which VFC were unlucky not to capitalize on.

The other difference in this match was Valour’s shape. While HFX played a traditional 4-3-3, the visiting side this time played a sort of 5-3-2 without the ball, which turned into a lopsided 4-4-2 when they had possession.

Pacific FC vs Valour FC, 050119
Aguinarena moved to left back with the ball, but tucked in to become an extra centre back without it

Diego Gutierrez was the main outlet when Valour built up in the first half. Gutierrez had a high starting position on the right side and also had Josip Golubar inside of him, who he combined well with. On the other side, Martin Aguinarena split wide when his team mates had the ball but didn’t venture too far forward. Nicolas Galvis was ahead of him and played a quasi-wing back role. Much of Valour’s possession in the first half took place on their right hand side with Gutierrez who attempted almost as many passes as Arguinarena and Galvis combined in the first 45.

Many Valour players asked to play hybrid positions

Because of the two shapes that Gale instructed his team to play, a number of players were asked to fulfill hybrid roles. Gutierrez played a full back/wing back role on the right, while Aguinarena played a centre back/full back role on the left. Louis Beland-Goyette stepped into midfield when his team had the ball and into a defensive midfield position without, and the aforementioned Galvis oscillated between being a wing back and a wide midfielder. Golubar and Dylan Sacramento were effectively shuttlers in this formation, and the two strikers took turns coming to get the ball with Stephen Hoyle being an outlet on throw ins and free kicks. Valour FC always seemed to have a number of options around the ball to pass to when in possession, and then to immediately win the ball back if they lost it. Eventually, VFC opened the scoring when they again caught Verhoeven in possession, this time with Gutierrez winning the ball in a high position.

This changing of shapes wasn’t perfect, however, and Pacific FC began finding the gaps between the Valour players. In truth, the match was choppy for large stretches, with both sides finding their most dangerous opportunities off of restarts and turnovers. Since VFC pressed much more effectively than HFX, Pacific FC had to rely on quick transitions more often which allowed them to catch Valour out at times. Their equalizer came off of a quick throw in where Marcus Haber and Ben Fisk combined to cut through the dead space in Valour’s left hand channel.

Second half meta game all about Skylar Thomas

While much of the macro evaluation of Valour’s shape focuses on the wide players and midfielders and how they interact, the fact is that in much of the second half the game revolved around their giant centre back, Skylar Thomas. On paper, Thomas is a perfect match up against Haber, and he at times impressively handled the PFC captain in the air. When in the centre of a back three, he was able to effectively defend his area and secure the penalty box. The problem was when he was asked to defend space or anyone other than Haber.

In the first part of the second half, Thomas conceded a couple of fouls when asked to defend players in space, especially substitute Victor Blasco. As the match wore on, Haber began drifting wider in order to go up against Valour’s smaller centre backs, while Blasco and Ben Fisk cut inside to run off the shoulder or at Thomas. Aside from the two dangerous free kicks that Thomas conceded, Pacfic FC’s best chance came when Fisk came round the back of Thomas and tried to chip Tyson Farago.

Pacific FC grew into the game as it wore on, finding better and better pockets to attack and isolating Thomas more and more, but Valour were still threatening at times with their pressing and with the number of people they were able to get involved in the active playing area. They took the lead when Gutierrez again popped up into an advanced position. His pass fell to Dylan Carreiro who scored with the help of a deflection, but it was the organized chaos that the Manitobans relied on throughout the match that helped them score the winner.

Valour defend deep to close out match

After the goal, Valour FC were able to defend deep which allowed Thomas to do what he does best and defend the penalty box. The home side did have some chances off of crosses and long balls, but they were unable (or unwilling) to play through the Valour FC midfield. Noah Verhoeven moved higher up the pitch and looked fairly effective, but his side was unable to find the equalizer.

Looking ahead

Valour FC, along with Forge FC, have offered the most interesting shapes thus far. It will be interesting to see if Gale insists on playing the hybrid shape as a proactive tactic, or whether he will change from match to match. Often times managers will decide to use a back three or a back four in order to maintain a spare centre back, but Valour FC switched based on which team had the ball. The good news is that it appears he has the personnel to switch systems mid match without making any substitutions. The other key for Gale is to find the best way to deploy the unique profile of Skylar Thomas, who can be either his most effective defender or his biggest liability.

Pacific FC played the same shape as their opener, but were unable to play the same style. Valour did a better job of pressing Michael Silberbauer’s men and they struggled at times to cope. A potential solution is to move to a 4-3-3 shape. Terran Campbell had another average match as the attacking midfielder, and playing with a dedicated defensive midfielder would allow that player to drag an opposing midfielder out of the middle and give Noah Verhoeven the opportunity to pick the ball up in higher positions where his passes are more meaningful and his mistakes less dangerous. Such a shape may necessitate dropping club captain Marcus Haber. Although the striker did well at times to drift into wide places to avoid Thomas, he forces his team to play a certain way. Against a team that utilizes large but slow centre backs to counter him, Silberbauer may wish to go with a quicker and more technical front man.

 

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Pacific FC 1 – 0 HFX Wanderers FC: Silberbauer’s multidimensional squad holds on for victory over impotent Wanderers

Pacific FC earned the first ever victory in the Canadian Premier League and go top of the table thanks to a fantastic display from their midfield and a lack of ambition from HFX Wanderers FC.

Mirroring formations cancel each other, but host’s midfield more industrious

Michael Silberbauer started his side in a 4-2-3-1 formation, while Stephen Hart played a 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 shape which meant each player had a natural geographic opponent.

Pacific vs HFX, 042819

Most of the intrigue came when Pacific FC had possession. Noah Verhoeven and Matthew Baldisimo took turns coming deep and sometimes wide to get the ball. Verhoeven, the game’s standout player, was the one coming deep more often of the two central midfielders, and he did a good job of keeping possession and keeping the home side ticking. HFX seemed content to let Pacific FC have the ball deep, and this made it difficult for Terran Campbell to get into the match.

However, Pacific FC had multiple outlets. Their full backs got forward at will, their wingers got on the ball, and when forced into a long ball they could knock it into wide areas for them or into captain Marcus Haber to reset possession. Haber had a few flick ons but didn’t impact the game as much as many would have assumed, although his presence as a plan B gives Pacific FC another option.

HFX, meanwhile, had no obvious outball. Their full backs were much more conservative, and their wingers failed to impact the game. Their two central midfielders, Juan Gutierrez and Andre Rampersad, failed to get beyond Verhoeven and Baldisimo, while Campbell’s positioning meant Elton John usually had a man on him in deep positions and could not play incisive balls forward.

The meta game of the first half often boiled down to Verhoeven versus Gutierrez, with the Canadian youth international coming out on top more often than not.

Big moments do little to change the of the match

The game had two big moments: the goal by Pacific FC and the second half red card. Neither one changed much. While HFX pressed briefly after conceding, they quickly reverted to their conservative shell. Pacific FC were content to keep the ball and probe when they wanted. Ben Fisk was pushed into central midfield when Baldisimo came off, but immediately Pacific FC were a man down. The Wanderers’ most dangerous player, substitute Kodai Iida, earned the foul that led to the sending off, but no one seemed on his wave length. Iida attempted to push forward and link up with quick combination play, but his teammates showed a perplexing lack of urgency.

Pacific FC fell into a 4-4-1 shape after the red card and were troubled by a few set pieces, but managed to hang on for the victory.

Looking ahead

Pacific FC got a relatively early goal and were never asked any questions by their visitors, so they were content to ride out the win. Verhoeven was the best player on the park, and his ability to dictate from deep with Baldisimo seems like it will be the key for a successful season. However, there are reasons for concern despite the positive performance. The hosts did not create many chances despite their variety in attack, and Haber has historically never scored in volume. It is fair to ask where the goals are going to come from. They also looked suspect on set pieces, and probably need a better center back partner beside Hendrik Starostzik.

Still, it is HFK Wanderers FC who have more questions to answer. They pressed sporadically and often dropped into a 4-1-4-1 shape, however they lacked incisiveness on the counter. Their central midfield three was outplayed for the entire match, and they had no idea how to take advantage when they were a man up. Stephen Hart needs to figure out how he wants his team to play; are they a team with a deep line who burns you on the counter, or a high pressing team that dominates space? Right now, they are neither.

Forge FC 1 – 1 York9 FC: Ambitious hosts unfortunate to share the spoils in CanPL opener

Forward thinking Forge FC had to settle for a draw against a defensive York9 side that sees two teams top the table after the first ever Canadian Premier League match.

York9 start brightly, but fade quickly

Jim Brennan lined up his side in a 3-4-1-2 formation, with captain Manny Aparicio playing behind two athletic forwards. Meanwhile, Bobby Smyrniotis set out his home team in a fluid 4-3-3 formation that controlled most of the match.

Forge vs York, 042719

 

However, it was the visitors who got the first goal in the history of the CanPL. In truth, York9 did start the brighter side, causing many problems for Forge FC with their high press. Forge FC clearly want to build from the back, with their goalkeeper Triston Henry distributing the ball to his defenders whenever he had the chance, but it was in possession where York9 struck. Aparicio picked the ball up in midfield from a forward pass from the back, turned his man, and played a dangerous ball in behind. Telfer popped up in a central position and calmly finished to give York9 the lead.

Initially, it looked like Forge FC would not be able to handle the athleticism of Brennan’s side, but as the match wore on and the adrenaline wore off, Smyrniotis’ side gradually took over.

Frano provides extra man in midfield

While the midfield was very fluid for Forge FC, it was right back Giulio Frano who took up the most interesting positions. While his full back partner on the left side, Kwame Awuah, often bombed forward to link up with Chris Nanco, Frano tucked inside to provide an extra man in midfield. This had the knock on effect of allowing Forge’s creative midfielders, namely Kyle Bekker and Tristan Borges, free roles to link up and get into dangerous areas. A clever link up between the two forced Nathan Ingham into a decent save midway through the first half.

Bekker, Forge FC’s captain and one of the league’s marquee players, popped up all over the pitch and created overloads in wide areas. He delivered five crosses despite ostensibly playing centrally, more than anyone on the pitch except Borges. Both he and Nanco constantly troubled York9’s centre backs and it was a combination of Bekker and Nanco’s profligacy, good indivudual defending from York9’s centre backs, and solid goalkeeping that kept the hosts off the score sheet.

York9 pinned back, no plan B

While York9 started brightly, it quickly became apparent that they were second best and as the match wore on they were unable to threaten Forge’s back line. Danger man Aparicio got on the ball early, but his influence on the game waned over time. Like Bekker, he drifted into wide areas, but it was more in an effort to simply get on the ball rather than create overloads in dangerous areas.

York9’s wing backs were unable to join the attack frequently enough, and while their centre backs defended well individually, they failed to move the ball forward effectively. Perhaps the most negative part of York9’s day was their inability to control the middle of the pitch. While Wataru Murofushi covered a decent amount of ground and tried to push the ball forward, Joseph Di Chiara failed to get on the ball, and when he did he was caught in possession a couple of times that directly led to dangerous chances. The commentators may have praised Di Chiara’s defensive work and last ditch tackling, but the truth is that he was a passenger for most of the game and was slow when he did get on the ball. It is telling that he attempted four less passes than Murofushi despite being on the pitch for 20 more minutes.

Both managers make changes, but Smyrniotis makes the correct decision

Brennan made the first change of the second half, subbing out Murofushi on 67 minutes and bringing on Austin Ricci. This pushed back Aparicio, who was on a yellow card, into a deeper role. Perhaps the thinking was to get Aparicio on the ball more as he was getting increasingly isolated, but what it really did was force Aparicio into more defensive duties. Eventually, Aparicio got sent off for a second yellow card after getting beat by Borges.

Ten minutes after Brennan’s change, Smyrniotis made a fairly obvious switch, but still a brave one. He removed holding midfielder Alexander Achinioti-Jonsson and brought on striker Marcel Zajac. This moved Emery Welshman to right wing and allowed Borges to come inside to a more central area. With Frano providing the extra midfielder while in possession, and York9 dropping deeper and deeper as the game wore on, Forge FC didn’t need an extra man in the middle to keep hold of the ball. This also allowed Borges to get closer to goal scoring areas and got the home side a genuine wide threat on the right.

The change worked almost immediately as Welshman got to the byline and delivered a cross that found Kadell Thomas for the equalizer. Two Forge players created havoc in the box, finally allowing them to have a free man to finish one of the many chances they created.

Looking ahead

While Forge FC were the better side, they didn’t look invincible. Hooper was good with his feet, but shaky overall. Their back line looked vulnerable to pressure and athleticism at times, but dealt better with the latter when Bertrand Owundi came on. Still, their performance as a whole was encouraging and they are likely to be one of the more attractive sides in the league. Their interplay in the final third was intricate and led to many dangerous opportunities. The fact that many of their players played together at Sigma FC under Smyrniotis may give them an advantage early on as the rest of the teams figure out their identities.

Meanwhile, York9 have a lot of questions to answer. Their keeper and back three played well individually, but were wasteful in possession. Di Chiara and Murofushi were functional at best, and their most creative player in Aparicio was eventually marked out of the game. Their two strikers attempted a total of 26 passes; that is only five more than Forge FC’s lone striker. There is an idea that Simon Adjei’s height and Cyrus Rollocks’ pace can be used to hit teams on the counter, but the two attackers looked impotent after the first ten minutes had elapsed. Toronto FC loanee Ryan Telfer flashed at times, and Brennan will likely need to figure out a way to get him more involved if York9 want to succeed.

Nelsen’s shape and the need to drop a striker

As any Toronto FC fan will tell you, the team has a lack of quality strikers. Robert Earnshaw scored a few goals to start, went on a cold streak, then finally scored yesterday before (after?) injuring himself. That leaves the newly acquired and unproven Bright Dike and the consistently underwhelming duo of Andrew Wiedeman and Justin Braun as the only fit strikers at the club following the departures of Jeremy Brockie and Maxi Urruti and the injury to Danny Koevermans. With that in mind we need to ask ourselves, why does Ryan Nelsen insist on playing with two strikers?

Dropping one of the two strikers for a midfielder is an obvious solution on so many levels, starting with the lack of talent. TFC currently don’t have a single fit MLS quality striker, let alone two. Even Earnshaw when he was healthy showed he doesn’t have the ability to be an every week starter on a competitive team. The other problem with these strikers is their lack of versatility. Brockie may not have had a good scoring record, but of all the strikers contracted by Toronto this year he is arguably the only one who could competently link up with midfielders and his other strike partner. The rest are mainly poachers. This is the big criticism with two striker systems these days. Teams are packing the midfield so much that playing with three central midfielders has almost become a necessity to compete in that area. Playing two strikers is a luxury stronger teams or teams with extremely versatile forwards can do; TFC is neither.

One could argue that Ryan Nelsen and the Toronto brass have made it clear that they want to spend big DP money on a class striker (or two), so why change the shape now if in the future the 4-4-2 is what they’ll be running? If this site has taught you anything it’s that you cannot look at players and shapes in a vacuum. The answer to this lies not in the new striker(s) coming in but in Toronto’s two young players who have been the brightest spots in an otherwise dull season: Jonathan Osorio and Matias Laba.

Osorio was initially played in a wide role before being shifted inside to partner Laba before the Argentinian injured his ankle. The idea was that Toronto needed more creativity centrally as the duo of Laba and Jeremy Hall were too negative to add any thrust. While it did give Toronto an extra creator it’s not necessarily true there was any net gain in attack. It gave Osorio an added defensive responsibility as he and Laba were the sole holders, and if he did go forward to join the attack it left Laba alone in the middle, and as good as the young DP is and has been his biggest weakness is probably his mobility — a key attribute for the more defensive midfielder in a midfield two.

On paper the pairing of Laba and Osorio makes a lot of sense: a forward thrusting creator and a positionally sound destroyer who both can and like to keep the ball, but the more one plays to his personal style the more he exposes the other. That’s why a third midfielder would help maximize their abilities. Playing Osorio ahead of the two holders in a 4-2-3-1 allows him less defensive responsibility. He is also a better attacker closer to goal. Although he’s probably Toronto’s best passer from deeper positions that’s more an indictment on the rest of the squad. He’s at his best when he can arrive in the box from deep positions and combine with the forward. Defensively he’d now either be pressing a center back if the opposition were in a 4-4-2 or their deepest midfielder if they played a midfield three, which is ideal since Osorio is better as a presser than as a tackler.

It also helps Laba, too. His aforementioned (relative) lack of mobility would be less of an issue with him having to cover less lateral space. He would be free to anticipate passes higher up the pitch or to go win the ball with the knowledge that he had another sitter beside him.

Since one of my points is that TFC should drop a striker due to lack of able personnel in that position it is a fair question to ask: Do they have the right personnel to play a system with three central midfielders? I have already outlined why I think Osorio’s and Laba’s  talents are maximized in a 4-2-3-1 shape but the question is who is appropriate for that other midfield spot, and do Toronto have him? Frankly, the answer is probably not, but I still think they’d be better off switching to such a shape. So who does fill in? Again, vacuums. It depends on the style Nelsen would want to play. Want to use that extra man to sit back in a deep line before hitting on the counter? Might be a good idea to play the defensive minded Hall and free up Laba a bit to play ambitious forward passes. You’d leave Osorio high up with little defensive responsiblity and so would need two dedicated holders to form two narrow banks of four. If you want to use that extra man to dominate possession and press high up the pitch then the underused Kyle Bekker may be a better choice. He values the ball and is not afraid to pick up the ball deep as a first function midfielder and play forward passes in central zones, leaving Laba to be the more patient possession keeper.

Looking at Toronto’s squad it’s probably best if they went with the former strategy. Although I think a midfield trio of Osorio-Bekker-Laba could actually do a good job of keeping the ball, especially when you add Bobby Convey into the mix, the problem lies in the back line. Steven Caldwell and Doneil Henry have grown in recent weeks but they’re both adept at defending a deep line while full backs Richard Eckersley and Ashtone Morgan are relatively poor passers in their positions. This is not even mentioning Joe Bendik whose two biggest flaws — agility and distribution — are the two most important attributes for a keeper in a press-and-possess system.

While Toronto don’t necessarily have the current players to play a certain system perfectly, the truth is the current squad probably doesn’t have the ability to play any system very well. But Nelsen can build around his current core of players and help maximize their abilities which is not being done in his current 4-4-2 system. The other criticism of Nelsen is his lack of creativity, he remains stubborn in his shape and style and reluctant to make substitutions until late in matches. He needs to get more creative and now is the perfect time of the season to do it. Play Bekker in a midfield three, push Osorio up behind the striker, heck maybe even try Convey behind the lone striker as a central winger to help overload the flanks. All these ideas have the potential to improve TFC and maximize the potential of their best players. And really, at this point Nelsen has nothing to lose.