TFC has already seen some of the benefits from the decision to install the former England international as its new manager, but there is plenty of work still ahead for the Reds.
TORONTO – Six previous bosses have entered the BMO Field press room and tried to find a way to explain why some misfortune unfolded in the way it did.
It took new TFC coach Paul Mariner just one home match to join the list.
“It’s an understatement to say we are all disappointed,” Mariner said after the Reds squandered a two-goal lead in the final 20 minutes to draw 2-2 with New England on Saturday. “I think we were running out of fumes towards the end with the long road trip having three games in seven days, but we just couldn’t hold it.”
The latter explanation just about sums up the defensive efforts of the first five and a half years of the club's existence, but this particular set of crestfallen feelings may just stem from the recent injection of hope in Toronto these days after the first three games of Mariner's reign.
Gone are the persistent questions about the direction of the side and the suitability of its shape under Aron Winter. Mariner brushed aside those particular worries upon his appointment by asking his players to give what they could for the shirt, reverting to a basic shape and shoving aside any aspirations toward some complex method of losing football matches.
If the first three games of the Mariner era have revealed anything, it is that this simplicity has instilled a necessary sense of belief and purpose without magically erasing the underlying problems.
There is, of course, something to be said about the way the Reds have taken to this fundamental 4-4-2 setup. Its tenets play to the club's current strengths – Danny Koevermans and Ryan Johnson up front, Torsten Frings as the shield in front of the rickety back four – without unnecessarily exposing those often derided weaknesses at the back.
By permitting the other side to keep the ball more frequently, playing more directly to the front two to create more attacking opportunities and sacrificing the third forward for an extra man in midfield, this particular group obtains just a touch more solidity and threatens more regularly in the final third.
Mariner's team selection against the Revolution included three holding players (Frings, Julian de Guzman and Terry Dunfield) and showed the importance of midfield industry for the Reds. Containment, not the high pressure required to run a 4-3-3 adequately or win possession in the opposing half regularly, is the priority here in the current diamond midfield setup. Dunfield, in particular, has played an important role since coming into the starting XI because he adds the type of relentless work rate required to pull everything together as the Reds start to defend around the halfway line.
The more conservative approach through midfield places significant responsibility on Eric Avila to create through the middle and for the fullbacks to push forward and provide natural width. Ashtone Morgan thrived in the second task on Saturday as he supplied the service for both TFC goals – one each by Johnson and Koevermans as they reinforced their ability to cause problems for opposing defenders and polish off chances if they receive the proper supply – with overlapping runs from left back, while Jeremy Hall has performed admirably on the right under Mariner as well.
Releasing the fullbacks to push forward at points and stopping the emphasis on pressing high on the opposition does eventually force the Reds to do what they do most poorly: defend deeply. Teams can certainly thrive on the counter by hitting diagonal balls into the spaces vacated by the TFC fullbacks, but the real problems start when the other side starts to win a couple of balls in the air against Johnson and Koevermans and sustains significant levels of possession through midfield to pin the Reds back.
As Houston revealed in midweek and New England showed through its prolonged periods of pressure during the second half on Saturday, TFC can't hold out for extended spells with its current defensive personnel. While the shape has improved under Mariner's watch, those strides have not eliminated the problems and the second half substitution of Frings highlighted the ongoing frailties. This group – including makeshift center back Richard Eckersley and developing stopper Doneil Henry – doesn't possess the necessary levels of awareness and experience to emerge from such situations unscathed with any sort of regularity. Mariner cited the youth of his defenders in the post game presser and there is no veteran organizer in place to set them on the right path just yet, but the displays under Winter with other players in the starting XI show the overall quality of the options poses a greater problem.
Past experiences with regime change indicate that this squad will change considerably over the short- and medium-term. Adrian Cann's recent and potentially serious knee injury further increases the perpetually glaring need for a pair of solid central defenders, while de Guzman's tenuous future mandates a review of the midfield setup, too. Truth be told, every department should and will receive a thorough review as the Reds try to climb out of the hole they have dug for themselves with a series of missteps since their inception.
A healthy dose of skepticism is required after the false starts of the past, but the first few matches under Mariner at least hint that this group has adopted the energetic demeanor of its new manager and taken steps to rectify some of the concerns that contributed to that woeful league start.
Such remedial measures may not prompt an immediate end to the scenes that unfolded in the latter stages of the past two matches. They may not even erase the need for Mariner to conjure up an explanation or two for subsequent setbacks. They do, however, provide some fleeting hope that the downtrodden scenes may not prove so commonplace at some point in the not too distant future.
Five Points – Week 14
1. Jack McInerney leads Philadelphia's young guns to victory: The third-year forward scored twice as the Union surprisingly brushed aside Sporting Kansas City 4-0 to hand John Hackworth his first victory as interim coach. McInerney showed why he felt he should have played more under Peter Nowak with a second strong performance after his insertion into the starting XI. His persistence yielded the first two goals of the game and underscored the Union's revival in the wake of the coaching change.
“The staff has shown confidence and trust in me, and I want to keep proving myself,” McInerney told the club's website after the game. “I am very happy with the results, but hopefully, this is just a start of a great run for myself and our club. I’m so happy we got a win. Did it feel good to play a big part in it? Sure. You always want to play. It definitely feels great to be contributing.”
2. Frustration comes in many forms: Just ask FC Dallas midfielder Daniel Hernandez. The influential veteran took his frustrations to Twitter – the crack fellows over at 3rddegree.net captured the thoughts before they were taken down – after he found himself stripped of set piece duties in the second half of a 0-0 home draw with Chivas USA. Those sorts of unseemly flareups – particularly for overtly committed and physically hampered (as FCD coach Schellas Hyndman noted after the game, Hernandez is playing through a knee injury for the tattered side) warriors like Hernandez – are par for the course when a team hasn't won in a franchise-record 11 matches. Like any storm, this too shall pass. A victory would certainly help to send it on its way.
3. Maybe it's time to hold off on the eulogies in southern California: Los Angeles once again provided a stark reminder of the sheer length of the MLS season and the topsy-turvy nature of the table by notching its third win in a week. Bruce Arena's side swept away Vancouver 3-0 at the Home Depot Center to continue its resurgence and jumped into the fifth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. What a difference three solid outings can make for a team that often looked poor in its preceding 13 matches.
4. Derby win must provide a platform for Portland: It isn't enough to just get up for the big matches. John Spencer's side needs to show more of what it displayed in Sunday's compelling 2-1 victory over Seattle at JELD-WEN Field on a regular basis. The goals finally arrived, but the quality – how about Franck Songo'o's audacious pass to Mike Fucito? – also showed up as well. Not every week involves matches with such rancor and stakes, though. There is hard work still to do – establishing some measure of consistency and quelling the lingering doubts about the ability to salt matches away – and the Timbers must show they can excel at more mundane tasks from week-to-week in order to accomplish it.
5. Could we see an Atlantic Cup meeting in the Eastern Conference final?: Sporting Kansas City will certainly have something to say about that particular query, but that scenario remains firmly in play in the wake of New York's 3-2 home victory over D.C. United on Sunday night. The engaging, open affair entertained from the first kick (or 30 seconds after it, if you want to start from Chris Pontius' opener) to the final whistle. Sure, there's plenty of time to quibble about the defensive issues, but many of those problems were borne out of a commitment to push numbers forward into the attack (particularly the fullbacks). The overall attacking quality on display suggests that both sides – and, yes, Sporting as well – sit well above the Eastern Conference chasing pack at this juncture of the season. The second half can certainly change the pecking order. On this evidence, it doesn't look particularly likely at the moment considering there is room for both sides to improve (New York with its health, United with some of its selection issues) as the season progresses.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.
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