If nothing else, Ryan Nelsen proved in 2013 that he was a pragmatist.
With a handful of blunt instruments at his disposal and not much in the way of bite, he mostly operated out of a comfortably bland 4-4-2 with a decidedly defensive mindset. Bread and butter stuff from the Kiwi. When life hands you a cheese grater to cut through a barbed wire fence, you fix up a grim visage, settle in for the long night ahead and start grating.
In Alex Olshansky’s final Tempo Free Table of the 2013 season, his findings bore out TFC’s frustrating possessive ethos. TFC tried to wrestle possession as much as possible, but they were tremendously profligate with their touches. Despite having more possessions per game than all but two teams, they were able to string together more passes than just one, the midfield-averse Chicago Fire.
What this says is that TFC was eager to turn teams over, but once the ball fell to their collective feet there were so few ideas available that the Reds were dead last in what ultimately amounts to all three money categories: attempts on goal, shots on goal and the resultant expectant goals formula. While the Fire were in fact more pass-averse, they were, incredibly, first in the entire league in all three of those statistics in front of goal thanks largely to an MVP season from Mike Magee. The Fire finished 20 points ahead of TFC in the East and missed out on the playoffs by a hair. Upon such walls are successful seasons mounted.
By the end of the season, unburdened by the postseason chase, Nelsen had settled comfortably into his tactical rhythm of conservation. In TFC’s last game of 2013 against Montreal, this is what his tactical readout looked like.
Does little to inspire confidence on its face, and TFC’s lone goal en route to the 1-0 win (a win!) was appropriately lacking in aesthetics. Dike wiggled loose about 10 yards wide of goal and shuttled in a deflected pass that was blasted toward net by Osorio, whose shot was deflected again by Earnshaw and into the net. The back line held and Toronto limped into the offseason burdened by so many questions that this abrupt postgame comment thread then seemed apropos. It now seems hilarious.
Fast forward to today, and despite the vast array of moving pieces, Nelsen has not changed. At least he insists he has not. At the joint introductory press conference for both Bradley and Defoe, he demurred on any massive tactical sea change, insisting that the 4-4-2 was likely given the pieces at his disposal. In all honesty, it’s hard to argue against him.
Given the relative paucity of bite in the last XI TFC lined up against Montreal in October in its last competitive fixture, here’s a decent bet for the starting XI for TFC’s ballyhooed opener in Seattle on March 15.
Not that I’m surprising anyone here, but there is absolutely no question that TFC’s 2013-to-2014 facelift is the most dramatic five-month transition in league history. The center back tandem stays the same (which is not such a bad thing – TFC gave up just five goals in its last seven in 2013), and Rey could conceivably shift flanks to compensate for a sparse corner of the depth chart at left mid (Jackson did his best work for FCD on the right, and it’s hard to imagine Nelsen dislodging an MLS vet with more than 100 appearances from his natural position). Otherwise, completely new pieces here.
Obviously this could change. The fluid nature of a long season demands it, and after all, it’s only February. Osorio started next to Bradley in the team’s first preseason meeting with D.C. United and drifted goalward in a formation not wholly dissimilar to a 4-4-2 diamond. With DeRo’s questionable 35-year-old legs, Osorio could end up starting most of the season in the attacking midfield. Or should Gilberto stumble in a second striker role most figure he’ll fill, DeRo could slot in as a forward, making runs off Defoe’s shoulder. And who knows, maybe Osorio finds a home wide left. Many things could still happen, but I think if Nelsen is honest, that XI up there is about as good as it’ll get for now.
What seems obvious for TFC in 2014 is that the possession numbers will change dramatically, albeit relatively organically. Nelsen’s desire to jealously horde possession in 2013 was borne out of necessity, since TFC needed a larger sample size to scratch out any kind of meaningful possession. When you can’t keep the ball, it behooves you to have it as much as possible. The trouble was linking that approach with any semblance of coherent forward movement.
Now, with Bradley – who will probably supplant Osvaldo Alonso in time as the league’s holding midfielder of record – to push the pace and provide more support for whoever he plays next to in midfield, it’s hard to imagine TFC’s possessions per game won’t drop (albeit slightly) and their passes per possession will skyrocket. This is not a team necessarily built to ping the ball around a la Portland, but it also no longer needs to cut out the central midfield to get to languishing forwards, either. If TFC is humming smoothly in 2014, it will be a balanced 4-4-2 with the ability to counter just as well as it can play through the midfield.
It’s unlikely Nelsen will push change through any dramatic tactical shift of his own. Most likely, he will officially cement what had already begun to happen in 2013 by taking the deep-lying center midfield role Bekker filled and hand it to Bradley, while moving Osorio’s positioning from a slightly akimbo shelf to an out-and-out tip of the spear filled both by Osorio and DeRo, assuming the latter can hold up physically. If Osorio proves uncomfortable operating that far forward, it wouldn’t be a retreat to simply slide him back and use a more traditional 4-4-2. To date, the only serious weak spot seems to be at left mid, and in MLS, a crack that gossamer thin is easily covered.
I don’t think the framework around what TFC did thematically in 2013 will see an enormous sea change. But the personnel within it should make it infinitely more palatable in 2014. That much is certain beyond measure.