By Glenn Crooks
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One could comprehend the frustration for Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney.
Following a 2-0 loss to New York City FC on Wednesday night, the Reds have failed to win a road match since defeating D.C. United on June 7, and it was TFC’s third successive defeat.
“It’s borderline ridiculous,” said the second-year coach about playing at Yankee Stadium. “It would be a perfect field for 12 year olds.”
While coaches around Major League Soccer have expressed their disappointment with the dimensions of the stadium (110 x 70), few have provided lingering postmatch comments which have supplied excuses rather than accountability.
“There were so many times in that game where their defenders were so close together,” he continued. “The game is so much about space and time that on a shoebox-sized field, a lot of those things go out the window.”
Did Vanney fail to review the film from the two previous matches against NYCFC this season?
On June 21 at BMO in Toronto, New York City sought to defend leading MVP candidate Sebastian Giovinco with physical encounters and constant numbers around the ball. David Villa scored twice, but it was the energy and tactics on defense that proved critical in the 2-0 road victory, just the fourth win in franchise history.
On July 12 at Yankee Stadium, the capacity crowd witnessed a wide open, 4-4 draw. Giovinco managed to find enough space on the “perfect field for 12 year olds” to score three times with multiple opportunities beyond the hat trick.
New York City FC coach Jason Kreis made an odd tactical change in that goal-laden match at the Stadium. He changed his team’s shape from the 4-2-3-1 that suffocated Giovinco in Toronto to a 4-4-2 with a diamond in the midfield. Consequently, Gio found more gaps in the defense and was free to dictate the tempo of the match.
On Wednesday night, Kreis reverted to the shape that included a pair of defensive midfielders. Andrew Jacobson and Andrea Pirlo managed to contain Gio (six shots, three on frame), the only MLS player this season with double-figure goals and assists (17 goals, 13 assists).
Clearly, the size of the pitch at Yankee Stadium provides a challenge, but to assert that it is not possible to open up the game, which was Vanney’s claim on Wednesday night, is ludicrous. He had the film to prove it.
Anyone attached to the New York City team has a robust desire to secure a soccer-specific stadium deal — and soon. However, the issue of overcoming the demands at Yankee Stadium lies in the level of player in MLS.
This is the first year I have closely evaluated the teams and players in the league. Undoubtedly, there are few players who are comfortable on the ball — especially at the back — without the technical prowess to solve pressure.
In my assessment, there is not a single group of backs in MLS that is adequately effective on both sides of the ball. The poor defending techniques and the lack of tactical awareness on the defensive side has been astonishing at times — while the inability to work out of pressure and build an attack has been equally alarming. This leads to direct play and the bypassing of the midfield, and matches are determined by second-ball madness rather than a coordinated attack.
Comfort on the ball requires technique and awareness. I’ve taken a meticulous look at MLS matches and have attempted to identify the players who scan the field to establish their defensive organization or look around to impart information for their first touch in the attack. Those players — Gio, Robbie Keane, Benny Feilhaber, Clint Dempsey, Javier Morales, Jacobson — are in the minority. When you combine that lack of awareness with limited technical skills, the result is a less than favorable product. Without ambiguity, I am depicting the elite level.
Remember, Don Garber has a quest for MLS to reach the echelon of respectability garnered by the English Premier League, La Liga and the Bundesliga by 2022. That pursuit remains a delusion as long as players like Josh Williams are starting at the back for a playoff-bound team. (Williams was released by NYCFC and picked up by Toronto FC. He has started their last six matches.)
At the beginning of the season, I questioned the 90 minutes of high pressure that Jesse Marsch implemented with the New York Red Bulls. He admits to the reception of bewildered glances from his players. I believed — along with many other colleagues, pundits and perhaps the RBNY players — that the New Jersey franchise could not maintain that tactic for a full season, especially in some of the hot, humid conditions they were to encounter.
We were all wrong.
The Red Bulls are successful with their constant, full-field press because they are fit, athletic and playing against teams that have limited capabilities to deal successfully with the pressure — this despite the fact that teams have had a bulk of the season to prepare for the chaos created by the Red Bulls. Marsch has not altered a thing since the outset. He has the same shape and the same personnel (with added depth), and his side has positioned itself for an Eastern Conference title and the Supporters Shield.
What I fail to understand is why most teams neglect to place substantial pressure on the opposition back line. There is not a team in the league — not the Galaxy, New England, the Red Bulls or Vancouver — that can respond favorably to constant pressure. Winning the ball close to your opponent’s goal results in more frequent attacking possibilities.
This discussion leads to one of the compelling reasons why the cries to sack Kreis are foolish. He understands the league and employs a style that demands an ability to pass out of pressure. However, he has not had the personnel or regularity in the unit to demonstrate the capacity to escape these jams. Kreis has been responsible for a portion of that inconsistency with curious lineup choices. Nevertheless, he remains the correct manager to lead this club.
For Vanney, he would be best served to focus on TFC’s propensity to leak goals. TFC has finished in the bottom six of goals conceded over the first nine years of the franchise, and ranks third from the bottom this season ahead of only the two expansion sides, Orlando City and NYCFC.
Vanney is on the verge of managing TFC to a first-ever playoff berth, but its desire to finish fourth in the conference and earn a home match in the playoffs likely fizzled with Wednesday night’s result.
-Down to 10 men, the Montreal Impact recovered from a 1-0 deficit to earn a critical point at San Jose. In their previous match, the Impact played to a 0-0 draw in Los Angeles. Montreal is in the sixth and final playoff spot in the East, one point ahead of Orlando City and two points in front of New York City. It has three games in hand on NYC.
NYC hosts San Jose in another three-point requirement match this Saturday. Airtime for our pregame show on WFAN is 6:45 p.m. ET, including my regular pregame chat with Kreis.
-The Red Bulls’ hold on the top spot in the table was brief. At Gillette Stadium on Wednesday night, New England topped RBNY, 2-1, to move into first place in the East by a point over the Red Bulls and D.C. United.
-Perhaps it was a combination of the NFL season’s first weekend or the U.S. Open men’s final. Regardless, Fox Sports 1 and ESPN2 drew less than 100,000 total viewers for MLS action for the first time last Sunday.
-The Guardian is reporting that Orlando City FC will add a women’s team to compete in the NWSL in time for the 2016 season.
-The NWSL final is a rematch of last year’s championship game. At Providence Park in Portland, defending champions FC Kansas City will play the Seattle Reign. Fox Sports 1 will broadcast the final live on Thursday, Oct. 1 at 930 p.m. ET. The Reign, who fancy themselves among the top club teams in the world with Megan Rapinoe, Hope Solo and Kim Little , will look to avenge last year’s 2-1 defeat to KC.