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Red Bulls Tactical Sips: Toronto FC 2.0

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A new version of the team the Red Bulls eased past in May brings different challenges

SOCCER: JUL 07 MLS - Toronto FC at New England Revolution
Michael Bradley and Toronto FC have looked slightly more competent ever since Javier Perez took over from...that other guy.
Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to Tactical Sips, a semi-regular pre-match post featuring taurine-spiked breakdowns of the upcoming game.

Fresh off a rain delay against Inter Miami, the New York Red Bulls return to action with their first international journey in a very, very long time. The dreaded summer stretch of three matches in one week was disrupted by the ever-merciful Mother Nature. The decision of which players to rest becomes a question of which to start, Canadian border permitting.

In this fixture, the opponent is none other than Toronto FC. The Red Bulls already faced The Reds this season, resulting in a 2-0 victory. However, this is a far different squad than two months ago, with the Long Island William Bligh having been sent home after yet another mutiny, likely to never again receive such an influential position of authority. While situations can be uncertain and circumstances outside of the norm, those befitting of leadership meet the challenge and achieve some measure of success.

The interim manager is Javier Pérez, a long-time someone on the American soccer scene, who previously worked with U.S. Soccer and New York City FC. The highly credentialed 44-year-old nerd has a UEFA Pro License, UEFA “A” License, a master’s in sport science from University of León, a master’s in physical medicine from Complutense University of Madrid, and his Ph.D. in exercise physiology from León. He earned a win in his first professional match, taking down the first-place New England Revolution, 3-2. That was followed up with a 1-1 draw against Orlando City.

Let’s dive into the shallow depths. Here are three things to watch.

YOU GOT NO FEAR OF THE UNDERDOG

Toronto is not the dominant entity of past years, electing this season to help prop up the Eastern Conference in the manner of a magazine or small square of wood. However, their ineptitude may be drawing to a close, an unwelcome prospect for opponents. While a playoff run is probably unlikely, the team can still be a thorn in the side and build a solid foundation for 2022.

This fixture has all the hallmarks of a trap game. As discussed by Simon Kuper and Stefan Syzmanski in the famed Soccernomics, teams will often experience an upswing after firing a manager. While form will eventually regress to the mean, the interim manager will pull off a few shock results and potentially entice ownership to keep him around. A short-handed New England was certainly caught napping by Toronto in the 3-2 result, getting caught on the counter attack and a touch too slow to loose balls.

2) GATEWAY CORP.

*Clicks projector.*

Look at the screen. This is Toronto FC against the New England Revolution. Do you see?

(Screenshot via MLS.)

*Clicks projector.*

The aftermath of a failed cross, do you see?

(Screenshot via MLS.)

*Clicks projector.*

The decision to play the early cross or hit a pass, the Revolution opted for an unnecessary give-and-go. Do you see?

(Screenshot via MLS.)

*Clicks projector.*

Orlando City as it looked after hitting the early cross, do you see?

(Screenshot via MLS.)

The Red Bulls have a penchant for breaking out and playing early crosses into the physical striker duo. These pairing will either win the header or pressure the defender enough to cause a loose ball, ideally at the top of the box. A trailing midfielder is able to pounce and take a fairly unencumbered shot at goal. This is not unique to Struber’s system, but his tactics are designed to create an increased amount of these opportunities. The beneficiary at Barnsley was Cauley Woodrow, whose highlight reel would look familiar to New York fans. Caden Clark and Cristian Cásseres have thrived this season when making late runs, turning mop-up duty into quite the profitable venture.

The Toronto center backs do not have a problem stopping the early cross, but, as you hopefully see, the team gives up a lot of space at the top of the box. The midfielders are either not quick enough getting back on defense or caught off guard by the opponent not pushing deeper, which results in dangerous second chances. One particular player could be to blame, as he may be too in decline physically to continue in the deepest role.

*Clicks projector.*

A former national team captain beaten to the ball twice on the same play, do you see?

THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER – LACK OF END PRODUCT

Toronto has a unique issue related to chance creation. The team is one of the most prolific in MLS at passes made into the final third but one of the worst at passes leading directly to a shot. There has to be a breakdown somewhere if the players are successfully reaching the attacking areas of the field but not achieving the next logical step at a rate commensurate with the rest of the league. Shooting numbers are similarly low, but the actual conversion of goals per shots is fantastic, so perhaps the strikers are not the problem. Even if they were, Jozy Altidore’s vengeful return would serve to at least partially offset.

Despite commonly held public opinion, Michael Bradley is not the problem on the attack. As a deep-lying midfielder, the 33-year-old lightning rod of hate has completed the fourth-most passes in MLS and leads the team in assists. Perhaps the issue has been the absence of Alejandro Pozuelo, as the flashy trequartista missed ten matches this season with a thigh injury. His return to the squad in May did not lead to a massive improvement in form, but his two assists have provided the expected creative panache. Additionally, crossing numbers have dropped but the completion numbers have stayed the same, indicating a less speculative build-up. The likely understaffed Red Bulls could be punished by his return to form and the acclimation of Yeferson Soteldo, as the pieces in Toronto are not only picked up but formed into a somewhat aesthetically pleasing puzzle.

What tactical storylines are you expecting to play out in the match? Let us know in the comment section.