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Chicago Fire draw brings back familiar lessons for Toronto FC

Alejandro Pozuelo (pictured) provided another assist in his second MLS game but Toronto FC was held to a 2-2 draw by the Chicago Fire. (Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports)

TORONTO — Frustrating as it may be to have more than 70% of the possession in a match and fail to win, there were some valuable lessons for Toronto FC in Saturday’s 2-2 draw with the Chicago Fire.

TFC’s downward spiral last year began with a series of home games in April and May in which they encountered opponents who defended deep in their own halves and hurt the Reds on the counterattack. The run started, funnily enough, with a 2-2 draw against the Fire following the Concacaf Champions League final.

There are reasons to be optimistic the same fate will not befall Greg Vanney’s team this time around. Most importantly, they are not coming off a grueling Champions League campaign and have an almost fully-fit squad. They are also six points better off after this year’s match against Chicago than they were after the same result in 2018, despite having played two games fewer.

The way the Fire threatened to pull off a surprise win after responding to Jozy Altidore’s opening goal with two of their own, however, shows that improvements are still required in this type of match, both in defense and attack.

Defending the counter

Both of Chicago’s goals came about in the same way: a pass out of defense by Toronto centerback Drew Moor was either deflected or miscontrolled in the middle of the pitch and turned into a counterattack.

Moor was not the only offender, but the second of the two, in particular, was the kind of absent-minded short pass that did not progress a move and gave Chicago the opportunity to put the recipient — Richie Laryea — under immediate pressure.

“Sometimes the concern with a team that’s allowing you to (control possession) is that you overpass, you play too many short passes in a tight area, you get too comfortable in possession,” Vanney said. “And that’s exactly what a team wants when they’re trying to play you on the counter — that you get a little bit complacent in those moments and they strike you when you are a little bit complacent.

“To be fair, that’s maybe what happened a little bit on the second (goal).”

Another problem in this particular instance was TFC’s positioning. While choreographed rotations and overloads can unbalance an opposing defense, right back Laryea’s move inside — with central midfielder Marky Delgado subsequently drifting out wide — was not of that variety.

Laryea, who has excellent recovery speed, may have been able to chase down Aleksandar Katai had he been in his designated position. Delgado, who is very good at receiving the ball in tight spaces, may have been able to protect Moor’s pass from trouble in the first place.

“It’s important against teams that want to play on the counter and have a lot of numbers behind the ball that you don’t get really random about your positioning and guys kind of moving all over the place, because you set yourself up for transitions the other way,” Vanney explained.

Then there is the elephant in the room: the goalkeeping of Alex Bono.

Bono was very good in TFC’s MLS Cup-winning season in 2017 and outstanding in the run to the Concacaf Champions League final last year. Since signing a new contract in the aftermath of those achievements, though, his form has deteriorated sharply.

One theory is that Bono, whose best quality is the athleticism which allows him to challenge shooters and make a range of saves, is not as well-suited to doing the kinds of things the Reds now require from their goalkeeper as a more possession-oriented team. But the stats do not show that the number of passes he is playing or the regularity with which he is sweeping up outside of his box has changed much despite the evolution in TFC’s style.

Though he is not excelling in those areas, he never has. It does not explain the decline.

The why remains a mystery, then, but the what is evident: Bono is too often making questionable plays that risk undermining the confidence of the defenders in front of him, especially when they are dealing with counterattacks and making decisions at speed.

“Chris (Mavinga) was going to make it, so if he just stays in his goal, we have a non-situation,” Vanney said of Bono’s decision during C.J. Sapong’s equalizer Saturday.

Width and penetration in attack

It’s easier to avoid the aforementioned complacent passing that cost TFC against Chicago if more dangerous, penetrative options are available.

“At the end of the day, they could care less how many passes we put together,” Vanney said. “They’re just trying to protect themselves and not give up goals, and the more passes we put together, probably the happier they are in some ways because eventually you’re going to make a mistake and they’re going to pounce on that mistake.”

That brings us to, in Vanney’s eyes, the last significant piece of the puzzle required — and one he has been asking for since the end of last season: a wide attacker. It’s likely Ali Curtis, Toronto’s general manager, will spend the bulk of his targeted allocation money on such a player if he can find a suitable one.

Asked if that theoretical player will be of particular use against defensive blocks like Chicago’s, Vanney answered in the affirmative.

“Yeah,” he said. “Because I do think when teams sit like that, you’ve got to have players, or a player, who can beat people one on one. When you have those types of players, they require help defensively (from a second defender), which then opens up a new space or it opens up other players.”

TFC’s three best chances Saturday — two of which ended up in the back of the net — came from almost identical situations: crosses swung in from the right towards the back post.

That should not be all that surprising given the effort Chicago put into congesting the middle of the pitch, including having Mo Adams man-mark Alejandro Pozuelo. By becoming a more consistent threat out wide, Toronto will be able to force opponents to respect the flanks. And when they have to respect the flanks, they’re paying a little less attention to the middle.

There is plenty to work on, and in the long run, the frustration TFC experienced against Chicago may prove more valuable than the extra two points.

“We for sure have to take something out of this game and learn from it as we continue to move forward,” Vanney said. “That’s what these early games are about.”

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