Why Toronto FC’s persistence with youth will ultimately come good

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On the opening day of the MLS season, I was aghast to see just how few players I recognized from Toronto FC. Some of the few that I recognized were even playing out of position, while Bob Bradley handed debuts to a host of teenage phenoms. With a persistence in playing prospects not quite ready to make their mark on the MLS, the start to the season was abysmal for Bradley’s team, succumbing to defeats at the hands of both Columbus and New York Red Bulls. But with a crucial first win against DC United last weekend, things could now be on the up for TFC, as they develop chemistry and rhythm amidst all the chaos of a new squad. Here is our early season analysis of Toronto FC, and why Bradley’s persistence in youth will ultimately come good, so long as a balance is achieved.

THE CASE FOR THE 3-4-2-1

In the opening set of matches, Toronto FC’s spine performed fairly well, but the wings were constantly caught out of position in transition, and struggled massively to create genuine chances going forward. Jacob Shaffelburg looked out of his depth at left-back, while Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty struggled to adapt to his new right-back role to an equal effect. With two slow centre-backs and an arguably slower defensive midfield pairing in front of them, Toronto FC were perpetually overrun in transitional moments. They couldn’t cope with long passes over the top, silky smooth dribblers breaking lines through the middle, or the gaps exposed by the high position of their fullbacks. That is exactly why a 3-4-2-1 could be the perfect formational change for Bob Bradley to make. The American coach may have only changed shape to match DC United’s 3-4-2-1 at the weekend, however, it worked like a charm in allowing for greater defensive solidity, and less responsibility on the high-flying fullbacks.

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With a snail-like back-line and, in fact, three players who all have similar defensive styles and stances, having that extra defender will help to support Toronto in all defensive phases of the game. It also allows Luca Petrasso to play in a natural wing-back role, where he can rampage forward and deliver crosses into the box. The 21-year-old put up an immense performance against DC, playing a massive part in both goals. Jacob Shaffelburg could also fit the role, while Marshall-Rutty and Kadin Chung would have more time adapt to the MLS without feeling the burden and pressure of defensive mistakes. The 3-4-2-1 could even allow Bradley to shift into a sweeper role where he can dictate the tempo of the match and work magic from deep.

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At the front end of the pitch, Lorenzo Insigne (when he arrives) and Alejandro Pozuelo will make for excellent inverted wingers. As they drift into central areas to pick up possession, the likes of Petrasso and Marshall-Rutty will then be free to venture forward down the wings, without the added consequences of doing so, whilst knowing they have the experience of MacNaughton and Salcedo supporting in behind. With Insigne and Pozuelo both floating centrally, the adventurous runs of Jonathan Osorio into the box would also be supported, allowing the talismanic figure to continue contributing on the goal-front.

In all regards, this shape would massively benefit TFC, and Bob Bradley should not feel any pressure to resort back to a 4-2-3-1 next week.

finding BALANCE WITHIN THE TEAM

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Toronto FC’s Youth Academy has boomed and bloomed over the past few years, and the club have been smart about when to integrate young players into the first team. On the opening day against Dallas, it’s safe to say that balance wasn’t quite what it should have been, and the Reds were lucky to walk away with a draw. At the same time, simply sticking the best players in the league together and trying to fit them all into an ingredient list would likely create an exploding cake. You have to achieve a balance, and find players that fit well together, each as one piece to a complex puzzle.

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Jonathan Osorio and Michael Bradley for example have played together for years, and provide a necessary level of control to Toronto’s tempo. Bradley may lack the energy and gusto to truly support his team in transition, but he’s absolutely essential to the team’s ability to progress forward and push Osorio into advanced positions. Meanwhile, Kadin Chung and Lukas MacNaughton have played together for years on the right-side of Pacific FC, including in last year’s CANPL Playoff winning team. These are the kind of partnerships that TFC need to prioritize and continue to build upon, as other players take time to settle in and find their rhythm with their new teammates.

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The second balance still to be achieved is the teeter-totter between youth and experience. Bradley’s calming presence and leadership is backed up by experienced pros like Carlos Salcedo, Alejandro Pozuelo and even their goalkeeper Alex Bono – who’s been a stalwart for the Reds the past few seasons. But as new faces continue to adapt, Bob Bradley needs to get the balance right. If too many youngsters play at once, particularly in new positions, he’s asking too much of all of his players to adapt to the fast-paced nature of MLS where quick decision making on the ball needs to be prioritized. Against DC United, Bradley achieved that balance magnificently. Jayden Nelson was the only youngster in the front-line, supported by two experienced Spanish pros. The 19-year-old looked dangerous throughout the match, had the freedom to take risks and express himself, and work his magic in 1v1 situations. But he was also supported by another young player in the form of Luca Petrasso, who’s needed no time to adjust to life in the MLS. Assisting the winner (and assisting the assist for the first from a corner), Petrasso clearly has a wicked left-foot that will be a massive advantage for the Reds moving forward. While the 21-year-old may be new to the league, a four year difference from Marshall-Rutty is a massive one, and one that better supports Nelson’s creativity going forward, and desire to drift into central channels.

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This is the kind of balance that Bob Bradley needs to continue to find with his team. It’s fantastic to see the future of Canadian soccer in such bright hands with all the prospects coming through at TFC, but Bradley needs to be brave in making the right calls at crucial moments with his team selections and substitutions. Sometimes that means a young player will miss out for a more experienced one.

CONCLUSION

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While it hasn’t been a dream start to the season for Toronto FC, the signs for what could be to come in 2022 are positive. The Reds claimed their first victory last Saturday in a new 3-4-2-1 formation, perfectly achieving the balance between youth and experience. Bradley needs to continue to find the balance in his team as he settles in and learns about his players. If he fails to adapt, other teams will easily overtake TFC, and they’ll miss out on the Playoffs for a second straight season.


So there it is! An early season analysis of Toronto FC, and why their experimentation with youth will ultimately come good, so long as a balance is achieved. Be sure to check out more MLS or Canada-related articles, and follow on social media @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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