Toronto FC's Bradley and Defoe punish a youthful Whitecaps side

Posted May 8, 2014 by Tyrrell Meertins
On paper, Ryan Nelsen’s team selection suggested that Toronto FC would claim a straightforward first leg Amway Canadian Championship semifinal victory over a young Vancouver Whitecaps side.
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But a late Michael Bradley goal was decisive as Kekuta Manneh’s injury-time goal nearly sparked a Whitecaps revival. With TFC enjoying a bye this weekend, Nelsen fielded close to a full-strength squad with Jermain Defoe and Gilberto upfront, while their first-choice back-line featured ahead of goalkeeper Joe Bendik.
At one point, the first half was reminiscent of Saturday’s loss against the New England Revolution, as Brazilian striker Gilberto squandered three legitimate goal-scoring opportunities. Gilberto, however, admirably led the press upfront, and his willingness to cover ground for Bradley and Kyle Bekker to dispossess Manneh in TFC’s third symbolized his work-rate.
Still, while the 24-year-old’s finishing was questionable, he still played an integral role in TFC’s opening goal. Gilberto’s cheeky pass into left half-space fell into the path of Defoe, and he coolly slid the ball past 17-year-old keeper Marco Carducci. Surprisingly it was TFC’s only goal of the half, as the Reds created countless chances to increase their lead. Defoe, Bekker and Alvaro Rey were played into great positions but their finishing in the six-yard box was poor.
While TFC encountered difficulties regarding their spacing on the field, the Reds persisted on attacking through the middle. The issue with Nelsen’s narrow approach is that their quick intricate passes are rarely successful –– when they are it’s brilliant, but when they fail they’re caught out of position –– and it impedes their attack. Although their productivity in central areas occasionally posed threats to a Whitecaps XI with an average age of 21.7, a moment of brilliance from Russell Teibert nearly led to an undeserved equalizer. Teibert’s penetrating run and intricate passes with Kianz Froese unlocked the TFC defence but Bendik made a terrific save to preserve the lead.
"I'm so proud of the young guys in there and based on the second half performance we deserve to still be in the tie by just being a goal down," said Whitecaps manager Carl Robinson.
"That's credit to the young boys in there, but it's credit to us a group because we have a never say die attitude. Two down with two minutes to go, we could easily say we'll shut down shop or whatever and lose 2-0 but we kept going and I think we got our deserved reward in the end."
At half-time Nelsen tinkered with his approach, and there was a distinct change in TFC’s play as they focused on penetrating wide areas. Within the opening 10 minutes, Mark Bloom and Rey got into great positions on the right flank but their crosses into the box were poor. On the opposite flank, Issey Nakajima-Farran produced an exceptional all-round performance. The 29-year-old worked tirelessly down the flank breaking up play, before storming forward into attack, and the experienced –– yet disinterested –– Nigel Reo-Coker couldn’t cope with the TFC winger’s strength, trickery, and pace.
Nevertheless, TFC’s wide men created goal-scoring opportunities from these wide areas. Bloom continuously surged into advanced positions, and he delivered two sensational crosses for Defoe and Nakajima-Farran, but the attackers spurned their chances wide of the net. Subsequently, Nakajima-Farran delivered a lovely diagonal ball to Rey, but his decision to take on a defender resulted in Carducci comfortably saving the TFC winger’s deflected effort.
Robinson turned to his bench introducing Manneh, Sebastian Fernandez and Omar Salgado. Suddenly the match opened up, and Bendik made two key saves to deny Salgado, and he comfortably held Teibert’s effort following the Canadian’s powerful run through midfield.
TFC encountered an additional issue as the match became stretched and it was the positioning of Bekker and Bradley. With both midfielders aiming to push into Vancouver’s third, the away side consistently exploited space between the lines. Neither the former or the latter produced memorable performances, but the latter’s powerful runs from midfield were pivotal.
Bradley had already demonstrated the threat he offers when he drove into the Whitecaps box, but a last-ditch Nicolas Mezquida tackle prevented the American from doubling TFC’s lead. The 26-year-old, though, wouldn’t be denied a second time, as he picked up the ball in TFC's half and stormed down the field before exchanging passes with Defoe and firing a low-strike past Carducci.
“We couldn’t get the second goal during the game to really kick on,” Nelsen said. “The longer that game went, Vancouver kept their confidence. It left a bit of a sour taste in our mouth, to tell you the truth, to concede that one.”
Manneh’s late away goal could be the difference in next week’s return leg, and the Reds must build on this performance as their variety in attack enabled Nelsen’s men to create several chances. Nonetheless, two moments of individual brilliance from TFC’s designated players won the match, further highlighting their significance to the squad’s success.