Significant roster upheaval? Red and white uniforms? Based in a city commonly featured in early Michael Cera films? Toronto FC are a completely unique side, one that the Red Bulls have never seen the likes of. No team has had such unprecedented success and such trying times in such a short existence, no other MLS team could ever be as unpredictable during their brief history.
Following the departure of a successful incumbent manager last year, Toronto’s appointment of Chris Armas last season coincided with the team’s downward spiral, an event that has never happened before in the history of the league. The Red Bulls face their polar opposites in Week 2, a matchup that could be a tough assessment for a side on the rise after a positive opening day.
(All cited statistics courtesy of FBRef.com)
Toronto underwent a massive makeover over the offseason, having to deal with 15 departures, a list headlined by names like Jozy Altidore, Yeferson Soteldo, Richie Laryea, and Justin Morrow. Half of their starting 11 from their final 2021 game is gone, leaving new manager Bob Bradley a clean slate to work with after the team’s disastrous 2021 campaign. Current Toronto captain Michael Bradley’s father has had a varied coaching career, with his success at LAFC always overshadowed by his debacle in Swansea. But his LAFC side was something to be feared at its peak, the free-flowing soccer guiding them to a Supporters’ Shield in its second year of existence. The Black and Gold of yesteryear were offensive powerhouses, Bradley allowing his attacking trios creative license. The license was certainly taken advantage of, with the team averaging over 2 goals per game in its peak years of 2018 and 2019.
Bradley instructed his men to play directly with very progressive passing, using the technical quality of wingers Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi to tear defenses apart, and also frequently rotating the forwards to create spaces. LAFC made it difficult for teams to stay organized against them, as it took very well disciplined zonal marking systems to keep them in check. Their offense was never the problem, even in the 2020 and 2021 seasons where they finished 7th and 9th respectively, they were still one of the top scoring teams in the league. What changed was the defense, heavily hit by the departure of their star center-back Walker Zimmerman. LAFC’s goals conceded per game shot up from 1.09 to 1.77 in the 2020 season after Zimmerman’s departure, and results slumped as a result. The disappointing 2021 campaign ultimately led to Bradley’s departure, although his MLS stock had certainly risen nonetheless after his time there.
The early LAFC Bradley is likely what Toronto envisioned when signing him, signaling an intent to play with the same attacking flair the Californians did. Club president Bill Manning stated that Bradley would “put his own stamp on the franchise”, wanting a “fresh start” after the failure in 2021. With the former US men’s national team coach at the head, Toronto wishes to reimplement the winning mentality that had the Eastern Conference trembling during the club’s dominant spell from 2017 to 2019. The signing of Liga MX defensive unit Carlos Salcedo signals the club’s trust in Bradley, and promising signs are there after the 1-1 draw against a similarly resurgent FC Dallas on opening day. The first half was not great for Toronto, as a still gelling defense afforded the Texans far too much space in behind, giving up easy opportunities that were not finished. In a way Toronto was lucky to be equal at halftime, however the halftime speech given by one of the two Bradleys evidently worked, as Toronto largely controlled the game in the second half despite not scoring. The team utilized the wide areas well, highly touted right back Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and Homegrown winger Jayden Nelson providing tantalizing service for the forwards.
Toronto played a 4-2-3-1, a formation popular for its usage of two defensive midfielders that sometimes have freedom to push forward. The Canadians have played this way for many years, with longtime anchors Jonathan Osorio and Michael Bradley providing significant offensive input. It’s interesting that the former scored against Dallas, the surging run he made to score his tap-in could be a sign that Bradley will not be hesitant to use his midfielders offensively. The central trio of Osorio, Bradley, and attacking midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo all possess great shooting capabilities, and the overloads that result from midfielders pushing forward is something the Red Bulls will have to take great care to manage defensively.
Struber seems set on playing three at the back, starting Aaron Long and the Nealis brothers (Neali) in the game against San Jose. Although the younger Nealis is likely to be replaced by returnee Tom Edwards for the Toronto game, Struber and his coaching staff will have to place great care to make sure the defense is not too overloaded. Struber’s 3-5-2 is a very fluid system, with the wingbacks and midfielders all selectively pushing forward and staying back to defend. It’s crucial that this is done well in the Toronto game, because an isolation of the back three can cause serious problems with Toronto’s free-scoring midfield. Whichever midfield pairing starts will have to work hard defensively as well as offensively, ensuring the backline has enough cover in transition moments.
Toronto FC (4-2-3-1)
New York Red Bulls (3-5-2)
Players to Watch
Carlos Salcedo & Chris Mavinga
The likely center-back pairing on matchday, Salcedo and Mavinga will have a tough task on their hands against an ever-energetic Red Bulls side. Building out of the back has become the norm worldwide, and Toronto is no exception. They want to maintain possession while under pressure, passing through players to retain the ball and go on the attack rather than launching upfield and hoping. Center backs play a crucial role in this system, with modern center backs being asked to move the ball quickly to the fullbacks under frequent pressure from opposing strikers. Quick decisions are crucial, because a moment of thought too long and the mistakes that the Red Bulls aim to force start coming.
Salcedo and Mavinga are both average passers at best, and with both still adjusting to Bob Bradley’s setup mistakes are bound to happen. As usual, much of the Red Bull’s success will depend on the opponent’s ability to deal with the trademark pressure. Getting the ball accurately from the backline to the midfield is crucial, and while the experience of defensive midfielder Michael Bradley should allow him to cope with the added burden, Salcedo and Mavinga are two potential weak links Struber could look to target.
After a positive performance in Week 1 that earned him a (bench) place in the MLS Team of the Week, Amaya is looking to build on his success against a much tougher Toronto team. The diminutive UCLA alum played at a more defensive midfield spot against San Jose and is likely to repeat in the same role. Tipped by some to be one of the team’s revelations for the coming season, Amaya’s combination of creative spark and defensive ability make him one of the top players to replace former captain Sean Davis. Amaya primarily played as a destroyer in the beginning of his professional career, being an adept tackler and also having the ability to drive forward with the ball once he won it back. This well-rounded ability makes him the ideal Red Bull midfielder, as players at the position are frequently asked to win the ball back quickly and do something with it.
Amaya had a good attacking display against San Jose, providing a lovely lobbed assist to Omir Fernandez and generally being a thorn in the Earthquakes side. However against Toronto his defensive side will be called into action more, as the previously mentioned midfield overload will play a big part in Toronto’s attack. The Red Bulls back three cannot handle the forwards and trailing runs of the midfielders at the same time, it needs support from Amaya and his teammates to stifle any chances. Amaya struggled last season with the defensive responsibilities that Struber wanted to place on him and his natural tendency towards a more attacking role, similar to the one he played in college. There is no question that Amaya is a great defender, his tackling and pressing numbers were among the best in the league at his peak years. But his unique balance between defense and attack make him one of the more complex roles on the field, a role that he will have to balance perfectly if he is to adequately deal with the Bradley/Osorio threat as well as being a playmaker. If he plays too defensively, a link between the defense and attack is lost and the notoriously creatively challenged Red Bulls will have to work even harder to break down the stubborn Toronto defense. But if he plays too offensively, then holes are left in the backline that may be too much to handle. His discipline will play a key role in how the midfield battle plays out, and if the Red Bulls are ultimately able to control the game like they want to.
Marshall-Rutty has big shoes to fill after longtime Toronto and Canada starter Richie Laryea left the club for English pastures over the summer, but Toronto’s designated Promising Homegrown certainly has the ability to fill in. The new fullback has garnered much praise from the media, having already trained with Liverpool and attracted some European interest. Similar to his Canadian compatriots Alphonso Davies and Tajon Buchanan, Marshall-Rutty began his career as a winger but looks to be making the common transition to fullback as he progresses. The club sees him as one of their premier talents, reportedly valuing him at a whopping $20 million, and his opening day performance certainly shows his ability.
Marshall-Rutty was a force on the right side against FC Dallas, frequently seen driving forward and putting dangerous crosses into the area. He touched and successfully passed the ball more than anyone else on the field bar the aforementioned Salcedo, and was arguably more of an offensive factor than his wingers. Defensively he was solid as well, again finishing second on his team in tackles and tying for the team lead in interceptions. In his first game he was an exceptional two-way threat for Toronto, and when he lines up on Saturday against the likely left-back John Tolkin, the matchup will be a key one. Tolkin will have to effectively contain Marshall-Rutty while also maintaining his offensive contributions, and if the Canadian’s attacking spark forces Tolkin play more conservatively it could create a real advantage for the northern foe. Besides just being the next exciting young talent to monitor, the youngster could be one of the biggest factors in how the game runs.
The game will remain cagey and tentative for long periods, but the Red Bulls stays disciplined to earn an almost trademark 1-0 win before heading home to Harrison.