By Kyle McCarthy
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – In the constantly changing world of Toronto FC, one problem remains frustratingly constant.
The Reds can't construct a cohesive and effective defensive unit.
TFC's defensive follies started in the nascent stages of the franchise's history (nine goals shipped in its first three games in 2007) and continue through the present day (six goals conceded in the first two games in 2010). An extensive list of defenders, pretenders and tacticians have shuttled through BMO Field without discovering any sort of permanent solution along the way.
Improvement beckoned in 2010 once Preki signed on as coach. The former U.S. international formed a tenacious defense with unheralded parts during his three years at Chivas USA and many expected him to improve the Reds defensively from the outset. Those expectations haven't turned into reality during the opening two matches of the campaign.
In some respects, Preki has already tightened up the team defensively. It is considerably more difficult to play through the Toronto FC midfield with the higher pressure and the increased work rate on offer. The tactical shape – a 4-5-1 against New England in a 4-1 loss on Saturday night – offers a firmer defensive foundation, while the tidy acquisition of Nick LaBrocca solidifies things in the center of the park.
All of the organization in the world, however, can't eliminate the need for a solid back four or make up for a dearth of quality on the back line. A cursory glance at the roster shows Preki simply doesn't have the pieces available to cobble together a top-notch defensive unit.
For all of the pros and cons in Mo Johnston's ledger as TFC's director of soccer, his inability to supply his coaches with adequate defensive options may rank among his greatest failures. TFC's history is littered with an assortment of sub-standard and underachieving defenders. Part of the problem results from the necessary reliance on Canadian-bred players, but a considerable segment of the dilemma rests on the paucity of quality selections and the suspect culling of the few capable ones eventually unearthed. As Johnston's ill-conceived deal to acquire former Kansas City teammate Nick Garcia and his massive guaranteed contract last summer (though, in fairness, with some considerations to soften the financial blow last campaign) neatly summarizes, the Scot's judgment on all defensive matters deserves considerable scrutiny.
In addition to the mistakes of the past, TFC entered this particular season with approximately one-and-a-half defenders worthy of a place in the starting XI. Promising Canadian defender Nana Attakora would find a spot in most MLS back fours, while Jim Brennan merited inclusion in the discussion for his play and his role as captain, but perhaps not for the corresponding value attached to his low six-figure salary. Johnston and Preki presumably reached a similar conclusion about Brennan's price tag in relation to his on-field contributions when they ushered him into the front office last week.
With Brennan out of the picture and off the salary budget and Russian right back Maxim Usanov not yet available, Preki assembled the best unit he could from the available options to face New England on Saturday night. Attakora partnered Garcia in central defense. Former Colorado defender Dan Gargan lined up at right back, while freshly signed Raivis Hscanovics replaced Brennan at left back and suffered through a debut that may have left Johnston and Preki wondering whether they should try to persuade the former Canadian international to end his hasty retirement.
After a stifling first half performance interrupted the Revolution's rhythm in midfield, TFC entered the second half hoping to ride Dwayne De Rosario's 28th minute header to a rare away win. A defensive implosion after the break ensured those dreams yielded to a harsh reality.
Comical defending contributed heavily to the home side's rampant victory. Two of the goals derived from probing work down the right wing against the struggling Hscanovics, though central defenders Attakora and Garcia deserved their share of blame as Zack Schilawski breezed in to bundle home inviting crosses through the goal area in both instances. Garcia and rookie Nane Joseph – deployed at left back after Hscanovics came off with a half an hour to play – presented goals to Schilawski and Sainey Nyassi, respectively, with casual play at the back to compound the misery.
The inept display led former Canadian international defender and current TFC color commentator Jason deVos to issue a less-than-flattering verdict on the Reds' second-half defensive capitulation.
“You simply can't defend like TFC did in 2nd half and win games,” deVos posted to his Twitter account (@jasondevos). “Too many individual errors. It's just not good enough.”
It hasn't been good enough for quite some time. The question now is whether Preki can locate the required elements to comprise an effective defensive core or whether the decision to cut ties with experienced campaigners like Brennan, Carl Robinson and Adrian Serioux will seriously hinder the quest. Based on the evidence provided by Saturday night's second-half disintegration, the new TFC coach faces an uphill climb to reverse the Reds' desperate defensive history to date.
Week Three – Questions, Thoughts and Answers
Star Man – Sebastien Le Toux, Philadelphia forward
The French forward certainly didn't perform like a player who had scored one goal in his 29 MLS career appearances entering Philly's inaugural home match. Le Toux collected a hat trick to spark the Union to its first victory with a 3-2 win over D.C. United at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Weekend XI
1. New York coach Hans Backe constructed this Red Bulls team with the expressed goal of forming a diligent defensive shape. Makes you wonder how long Bouna Coundoul has between the sticks after his calamitous error gifted Chivas USA the opening goal in its 2-0 victory on Saturday afternoon at the Home Depot Center. Backup goalkeeper Greg Sutton doesn't possess Coundoul's athleticism, but he may offer a steadier pair of hands until the Red Bulls can acquire a more permanent option.
2. Quiet the skeptics by consistently producing influential performances like the one you conjured up against New York, Jesus Padilla.
3. While Le Toux deserves to grab the headlines for his hat trick in Philly's victory, Alejandro Moreno deserves his fair share of credit for his tireless contributions to the Union attack. Moreno produced a fine performance – drawing fouls in dangerous places time and again, procuring a red card on Dejan Jakovic to set up Le Toux's match-winning free kick and providing an effective option to hold and link up play – to lead Philadelphia's effort from the front.
4. Credit D.C. goalkeeper Troy Perkins for assuming some of the blame for United's defeat by claiming responsibility on the Union's first and third goals, according to The Washington Post. He shouldn't be the only one. After a dismal opening three matches and a particularly dreadful opening half on Saturday night, Perkins' teammates need to share the burden created by a difficult start to the Curt Onalfo era.
5. New England forward Zack Schilawski joined Brian Maisonneuve and Pat Noonan as the only rookies to bag a hat trick after that 4-1 home win over Toronto FC.
6. Speaking of goalscorers in fine form, Los Angeles forward Edson Buddle increased his MLS-leading tally to five after he picked up a brace in the Galaxy's 2-0 win over Houston at Robertson Stadium. The quality of Buddle's finishes against the Dynamo – an audacious opener to beat Pat Onstad at the near post and a cracking side-volley for his second – indicates his confidence is surging. In the first three games of 2010, Buddle has matched his 2009 output of five goals to fuel Los Angeles' hot start.
7. Bobby Convey responded to his second-half benching in San Jose's disappointing season-opening loss to Real Salt Lake in the best possible way. Convey's incisive run from the right side and precise cross found Ike Opara at the back post to hand the Earthquakes a shocking 2-1 victory over Chicago at Toyota Park. Perhaps Convey should tip his hat to Jason Hernandez after his vital block on Collins John's goalbound shot in the 73rd minute set the stage for Opara's winner eight minutes later.
8. “Three goals we've conceded, and it has been three dead-ball situations,” Colorado coach Gary Smith told the Denver Post after Kei Kamara headed home Ryan Smith's inch-perfect free kick to give Kansas City a 1-0 victory at CommunityAmerica Ballpark. “We haven't conceded a goal in free play yet. So you know that's something that needs to improve from our side some.”
9. The Columbus players who stormed after referee Jasen Anno in the aftermath of FC Dallas substitute Eric Avila's stoppage-time equalizer in the 2-2 draw at Pizza Hut Park certainly looked like they had a case. Then again, if Emilio Renteria could have hooked his clearance somewhere other than the middle of the field, Columbus may not have had to worry about Avila's hand ball and sumptuous finish.
10. “Giving up a goal in the last second like that, we're not happy with it,” Seattle coach Sigi Schmid told the Seattle Times after Alvaro Saborio's injury-time header earned Real Salt Lake a 2-2 draw at Rio Tinto Stadium. “We could have walked away with three points. ... It's a criminal mistake at the end of the game. We can't make a mistake like that.”
11. Salt Lake Tribune columnist Kurt Kragthorpe took RSL out behind the woodshed after the Claret-and-Cobalt stumbled on a night designed to celebrate its MLS Cup victory. “November's playoff darlings are already back to being the league's most incredibly average team,” Kragthorpe huffed as he declared business as usual after the draw against Sounders FC. Safe to say expectations have increased in Utah, eh?
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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