Olsen outwits Nelsen as D.C. United end TFC's unbeaten streak

Posted Jul 6, 2014 by Tyrrell Meertins
Toronto FC’s tactical flexibility has been questioned on several occasions this season. Ryan Nelsen’s reluctance to stray away from his preferred 4-4-2 is odd, but the return of Michael Bradley, and a congested fixture list forced his hand.
Courtesy of Flickr/Chase McAlpine
Nelsen opted to play the American midfielder as the no.10 behind Jermain Defoe, rather than in a midfield two ahead of the back four, as the TFC manager selected a defensive-minded duo of Bradley Orr and Collen Warner.
The decision to move to a 4-2-3-1 was successful in the opening half, as D.C. United struggled to breakdown the TFC back-line. It was the same issues D.C. encountered in their previous visit to BMO Field, but here, TFC’s reluctance to press Davy Arnaud nearly backfired.
Arnaud played two long balls over the TFC defence into half-space that saw Eddie Johnson concede a goal-kick, whereas Chris Rolfe held off Mark Bloom but Joe Bendik was quick off his line to receive the loose ball. The D.C. double-pivot operated in deep positions, but with Johnson and Luis Silva failing to link with the midfield or vary their movement, the away side’s buildup play was laboured.
Similarly, TFC’s best moves were created in central areas through Warner. Orr’s inclusion offered Warner more freedom in midfield to provide penetration with his vertical passes.
Likewise, it was Warner who ignited majority of TFC’s best moves in the opening half. The TFC midfielder shrugged off a challenge and played a pass to Defoe, who spotted Bradley’s forward run into the box, but his heavy touch halted the play. The trio combined again as Defoe controlled Warner’s cross into the box, and the striker played a short pass to Bradley, but he skied his effort over the net.
Then, he drove forward into D.C.’s third, combining with Jackson, before sliding a ball into Defoe, but Bill Hamid denied the TFC striker’s left-footed shot. Finally, Warner dispossessed Perry Kitchen, and found Moore in a pocket of space, but the 28-year-old’s shot deflected wide for a corner. Warner was the catalyst of TFC’s best moves in the opening half as his gusto, creativity and reliable passing led to several chances.
Nelsen, however, made a peculiar tactical change in the second half by introducing Dominic Oduro for Bradley Orr. TFC reverted back to a 4-4-2 with Bradley dropping deeper and Moore alongside Defoe. On the contrary, Kitchen’s advanced positioning conceded space in midfield that TFC was keen on exploiting.
TFC encountered the same issue following the change as Warner had more ground to cover, mainly due to Bradley pushing forward, and the fullbacks surging into D.C.’s third. However, the away side pounced on a defensive mistake from Nick Hagglund in the buildup to their opening goal, as Nick DeLeon dispossessed the young centre-back and ran towards goal — drifting by Hagglund and Warner — and firing a well-placed shot past Bendik.
TFC quickly responded as Warner found Jackson in a pocket of space, and the winger slid a ball into half-space for Defoe, which ultimately led to Moore tapping in a rebound past Hamid. Nelsen’s side continued to receive the ball in pockets of space throughout D.C’s third, and Defoe dropped deep to receive the ball, but the Reds’ final ball was non-existent and they lacked quality finishing.
In contrast, the buildup to D.C.’s winner epitomized their improvement in the second half following Olsen’s decision to introduce Lewis Neal for the ineffective Silva. Kitchen out-muscled Jonathan Osorio and played the ball into a pocket of space for Rolfe who then found Neal, and the substitute played the ball wide to DeLeon who earned a corner. Subsequently, Kitchen nodded an exceptional set-piece delivery from Neal past Bendik and that proved to be the difference.
Rolfe moved behind Johnson and Neal was positioned on the left, as D.C. began to retain possession and exploit space between the lines due to lack of protection in central areas. The final 15 minutes of the match was fairly open with both sides committing numbers forward, thus leading to quick breaks on the counter, but the home side lacked an end product.
Nelsen introduced a direct winger in Daniel Lovitz in the latter stages, but Olsen countered the move by replacing DeLeon for Conor Doyle to ensure that Sean Franklin received adequate protection. The buildup to Hagglund’s sending off served as a great example as to how open the game was. Moore and Defoe combined around the edge of D.C’s area, and Moore broke free on goal but his shot was blocked. Doyle instantly played a terrific ball — that bypassed Steven Caldwell and Hagglund — into Johnson, thus forcing the latter to pull down the D.C. striker.
“Toronto changed to a 4-4-2 and it really left the middle open for our midfield as we were playing with five in the middle,” DeLeon said.
“First half it was a little clogged and we couldn’t get a rhythm going, second half was a better game and much more open with both teams getting chances, we were just fortunate enough to put two away.”
Still, the contrast in decision-making between both managers was pivotal to the final result. Olsen reacted to the isolated strikers in his side, and introduced an additional midfielder to retain possession, dominate central areas and link play in the final third.
“A couple lapses in concentration, a couple of mistakes and it cost us the game,” TFC coach Ryan Nelsen said.
Nelsen’s decision to stray away from TFC’s first half success is mystifying, and while the Reds continued to create chances, they equally lacked numbers in central areas and were punished for their defensive mistakes.
The margins between success and failure is slim for Nelsen, and losing home matches in this manner could impede TFC’s chances of making an historical first playoff appearance.