Vancouver Whitecaps FC resoundingly won their first ever match in MLS and they did so by playing simple and capitalizing on the mistakes of Toronto FC. Vancouver manager Teitur Thordarson lined his side up in a rigid 4-4-2 formation with two powerful strikers while Aron Winter had Toronto play in their preseason favoured 4-3-3. He did spring a surprise, however, playing Adrian Cann at left back. Even though Cann played there in their final friendly no one realistically expected the center back to line up on the left side.
Toronto control ball early
Early on in the match the visiting team did well to keep the ball and get it forward. Emotions were high and the pace was electric but Toronto did well to pass it around. On goal kicks Toronto’s two center backs would go very wide, being to the side of the vertical lines of the 18 yard box. This allows for the full backs to push up much higher than usual however Toronto could not use this strategy effectively for two reasons: 1) Their full backs are not mobile or technical enough to support the attack, and 2) Nathan Sturgis was having trouble finding space deep. Both of Vancouver’s strikers did well angling the TFC center backs away from the middle. Once in a while when Sturgis did drop deep and find space he had no one to pass to forward — De Rosario and Peterson failed to drop deep as well.
That being said Toronto found a little joy with the ball in the opening 15 minutes. This is because after knocking the ball around at the back they fired quick, long diagonal balls to the wings. This helped stretch a compact Vancouver defense but for some reason they did not continue to exploit this tactic.
A final interesting tactical note to observe from a Toronto point of view was the switching of positions between Maicon Santos and Dwayne De Rosario. Maicon would often drop very deep creating space where he began the move. De Rosario is naturally a more forward player than his deep starting position and so he was naturally inclined to find this space.
Whitecaps play direct to win possession high up the pitch
Vancouver on the other hand did not care much about building from the back. Their main strategy was to hit balls forward toward Eric Hassli. However, these weren’t long hopeful balls praying for a flick on. Rather than passing through the middle where TFC enjoyed a 3v2 advantage, Vancouver bypassed the midfield and had Hassli (and less often Atiba Harris) win the ball with his strength and reset possession — this time 40 yards further up the pitch. This is exactly how Vancouver scored their first goal. A long ball was well held up and Vancouver reset possession high up the pitch, Chiumiento put in a cross and Hassli finished for Vancouver’s first ever MLS goal.
The key here is that Vancouver’s long balls were not aimless thumps. Clearly they had a plan to hit it into Hassli and support him. They weren’t running ahead of him, rather they expected him to hold it up rather than flick it and they supported him to reset their move nearer the box.
Quick pace eventually dies but pattern remains
After a frantic start the match eventually started to slow but Toronto’s goal came from the aforementioned Maicon-De Rosario swap. Maicon found himself near the half way line and De Rosario found himself in a forward position. While neither of Vancouver’s center backs was actually drawn out of position it is not a stretch to think the confusion of De Rosario suddenly bombing from deep into space usually filled by Maicon made it difficult for them to pick up the move. A fine diagonal ball into a diagonal run made for a great ‘pattern’ goal — an algorithm of sorts in football. However Toronto rarely found the ball in a good position to make a good final pass because their midfield had trouble finding space and showing for the man in possession.
However Vancouver answered quickly in a familiar way. A long ball was won by Vancouver, their midfield supported Hassli and Chiumiento played a delightful ball into the streaking Dunfield. Toronto FC simply could not cope with the physicality of Vancouver’s forwards or the mobility of Vancouver’s midfield, Cann regularly being dragged around by Chiumiento.
Pace lessens in second half, TFC can’t crack Whitecaps
The pace and pressing of the second half was much less than the first which was to be expected. Vancouver stood off much more than in the first 45 minutes and made it difficult for Toronto to break them down. Offensively they kept their game very direct and physical, winning corner after corner as the visitors just couldn’t cope with the strength and tenacity of the hosts. Eventually one of the corners dropped for a Vancouver player, it’s no secret that the chances of scoring off a corner go up with the higher number of corners you have.
Winter responded by subbing on Mikael Yourassowsky and Gianluca Zavarise, two players who instantly added more mobility to the side and Toronto immediately looked better going forward. This of course had an effect defensively and Toronto were more exposed at the back with Toronto’s back four playing higher and with less midfield support. This was suicide for Toronto as 3/4 of their back line (Gargan, Harden, Cann) show well below average pace and Toronto was constantly torn apart by simple balls. Vancouver scored on the break and could have had more had they capitalized on tired distribution (especially from Harden) and Toronto scored after good work from fresh legs on the left but the damage was already done, Vancouver were never going to lose this game.
Toronto and Vancouver came into the match with two opposing styles and one prevailed over the other. One cannot claim from this that one style is inherently better than the other, there are other variables to consider. First, both sides had major roster turnover from last season and both are still very unfamiliar with each other and so a simple and direct game is easier to play than a possession based game relying on intricate off the ball movement. Second, Winter made a couple of baffling personnel decisions that hampered the athleticism of his side which played right into Vancouver’s hand. Vancouver fans can be happy they won and that their designated player looks like the real deal however they should refrain from getting too excited. Toronto fans should hope Winter learns from this match. A real left back and Julian de Guzman will help but Toronto really need to work on their off the ball movement if they want their team to be successful. Regardless, there is much to talk about this Toronto side and it will be interesting to see if and how they evolve.