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article imageReal Salt Lake's midfield superiority sinks Toronto FC

By Tyrrell Meertins     Mar 30, 2014 in Sports
Toronto FC’s fairytale start to the Major League Soccer season reached its conclusion Saturday night. A trip to Rio Tinto Stadium –– a venue that TFC has failed to record a victory in –– was the ideal platform to test the Toronto club’s crede
Ryan Nelsen’s side, however, received a wake-up call; frankly, it was a rude awakening. Nelsen, though, previously stated that rough patches awaited, and a trip to Real Salt Lake indicated the gap between TFC, and MLS’ elite sides.
“If you’d given me six points after the first three games that we had, considering the opposition and where we had to go, I would have taken it in a heartbeat,” Nelsen said.
Nelsen was forced to tinker with his preferred starting lineup, as Jonathan Osorio’s hamstring injury and Jackson’s one-match suspension meant the duo was unavailable for selection. Jeremy Hall was called upon to form a midfield pair with Michael Bradley, whereas Bradley Orr slotted in at right-back, and Mark Bloom started on the right flank.
This was TFC’s worst performance of the season from a defensive perspective, based on how easy RSL bypassed their midfield and dictated possession; at times Jason Cassar’s side’s performance levels were pedestrian. Still, Nelsen’s simplistic approach was peculiar. His admiration of the 4-4-2 is evident, but with Salt Lake fielding four ball playing midfielders, TFC desperately required bodies in central areas.
Overall, the key feat towards Salt Lake’s success was their superiority in midfield. Even with Osorio in the starting XI this season, Bradley’s willingness to lead the press has left the 21-year-old midfield vulnerable at times. With Hall lacking the dynamism and will to demand possession –– significant traits Osorio possesses –– Bradley was left with more responsibility in central areas, thus leading to the midfield being overrun.
It was clear from the opening minutes, as Javier Morales casually drifted between the lines to receive possession and distribute passes within the final third. The Argentine midfielder was sensational over the course of the match, and his appreciation of space was pivotal. Morales drifted into the inside right channel to link play and create overloads, whilst also dropping deep to provide an extra passing outlet and retain possession.
The Argentine’s freedom between the lines was the catalyst in RSL’s second and third goal. Luis Gil and Morales combined linked play in space behind Hall and Bradley thus leading to the former’s goal. In the second half, Morales movement went untracked and he chipped a delicate ball into Alvaro Saborio, and the Salt Lake striker confidently slid the ball past Cesar. As the match continued, Morales’ teammates began to exploit pockets of space in the final third, as Hall and Bradley failed to cope with RSL’s overload in midfield.
"We just have to be honest with ourselves to know there's still a lot of work to do," Bradley said. "Tonight is a good reminder of that."
While Salt Lake was imperious going forward, TFC still created numerous chances over the course of the 90 minutes. Cassar’s shuttlers occasionally kept TFC’s full-backs quiet, but their main goal was to track Rey and Bloom to ensure the wingers encountered 1v2 situations –– this explains the lack of productivity in wide areas.
Similar to TFC’s home opener, Defoe’s finishing was poor, whereas Bradley was the away side’s key player. The American played a game-high seven key passes, creating legitimate goal-scoring opportunities for Defoe and Gilberto. Also, his second half strike from distance left Nick Rimando motionless as his shot rang off the post.
Likewise, subsequent to RSL’s third goal, a five-minute spell saw TFC exploit pockets of space in Salt Lake’s midfield, but the away side couldn’t beat Rimando. Salt Lake was rarely tested defensively, as they easily monopolized possession, but Nelsen was quick to shrug off his side’s lack of ball retention.
“What I see is 15 attempts on goal, which is just as many as they had,” Nelsen said.
Lack of depth, and team chemistry will likely be associated with TFC’s first defeat of the season, but Nelsen’s tactical naivety led to Salt Lake’s dominance in midfield.
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