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Toronto FC’s preseason gives clues about approach to CCL

What can we take away going into next Tuesday’s clash in Colorado?

MLS: MLS CUP-Seattle Sounders vs Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Rapids spent the preseason in their familiar training territory of Arizona, playing MLS sides and a few lower league teams like Sporting AZ and Phoenix Rising FC.

Toronto FC has taken a different approach.

The treble-winning side from Ontario threw their team into the proverbial soccer deep end in scheduling a two-week road trip to play top Liga MX teams in midseason form rather than other MLS sides easing into the year. Granted, those Mexican teams sometimes kept their top players on the bench for some or all of the match, preferring to play their reserves. Nevertheless, it is clear that Toronto created their preseason schedule with a long march through CONCACAF Champions League in mind.

The different approaches each make sense for their respective sides. The Rapids are trying to acclimate a handful of new players into their squad, not to mention a new coach. Anthony Hudson, Tommy Smith, Jack Price, Edgar Castillo and Danny Wilson are all new to MLS.

Toronto FC, on the other hand, made precious few roster moves in the offseason. They lost right back Steven Beitashour and added two players: Dutch right back Gregory van der Wiel and Brazilian defender Auro. They aren’t looking to galvanize a band of newbies into the club—they are looking to continue the success of 2017 as if there were a clean line of progression from MLS Cup right into their next challenge. It makes a lot of sense too: TFC had the shortest offseason in MLS due to their long playoff run that culminated in a trophy. The only question is whether the strain of traveling to Mexico and playing top Mexican sides has been physically taxing for Toronto’s players, which might play to the Rapids advantage.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at TFC’s preseason and pick up some possible data that might inform what we could see next Tuesday as Toronto takes on the Rapids in Leg 1 of the 2018 Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16.

January 31: Toronto FC 3, Club Tijuana 2

The Reds scrimmaged at a college soccer field in San Diego against Xolos of Tijuana. Xolos gave many of their starters a 45-minute runout before swapping to reserves, as the Liga MX team had a Saturday match against Santos Laguna in the Clausura just three days after this match.

The game was streamed so I got a look at what the Reds were cooking. They played their best XI from the start until the 61st minute, when they made mass substitutions to freshen up the squad in a move that was clearly based on early-season fitness.

TFC possessed the ball for the bulk of the game, and combined a rapid-fire, quick-moving buildup with a lot of medium and long ground passing in a formation that lists like a 4-4-2 but plays like a 4-1-3-2. Bradley sat a little deeper and sent passes to runners or to Jozy Altidore as he came back to the ball to play 1-2s or 1-2-3s to the other TFC midfielders.

It would have been impressive if not for the fact that Tijuana played from behind virtually the entire match and their players were frequently caught out on defense. One could say that TFC showed a magnificent ability to generate offense in the most dangerous parts of the pitch: midfield, and just above the 18-yard-box. One could also say that the Xolos defense was too lax, and we shouldn’t be impressed with a group of second stringers and youth players. One youngster was even out there with the number 239 on his back (in Mexican clubs, youth players below the Senior team are given three-digit jersey numbers).

Also, TFC was exposed on the counter in both of the goals they conceded, which is something I imagine Rapids Head Coach Anthony Hudson is thinking a lot about. Still, TFC was strong, and for a game so early, that is impressive.wAlso, Giovinco did this:

February 2: LAFC 2, Toronto FC 2

It was TFC’s second scrimmage of the season and LAFC’s first game in club history, and the two teams drew in a match held on the UCLA campus. TFC started an entire lineup of reserve players, recent homegrown, and fringe players for the first 45 minutes before bringing on the starters. Tsubasa Endoh scored a goal in the first frame, and Sebastian Giovinco put one away in the second.

The game was not streamed and the lineup was not announced with a clear formation. However, from the second half player selection, one can deduce that the team came out in a 4-4-2, with a back line of Nicolas Hasler, Chris Mavinga, Drew Moor, and Justin Morrow. This was an early-season workout for these guys, so there isn’t much to take away from this game performance-wise. But you’ll see that the formation they played in this scrimmage was a foreshadowing of things to come throughout the preseason.

February 8th: Club America 6, Toronto FC 3

The Reds rolled out their starters and played a match that was more like a regular season game, as many of the starters went the full 90 (played in three, 30-minute periods). But Club America, one of Liga MX’s most powerful teams year-in and year-out, proved to be too much for Toronto in the end. Here was the lineup :

Bono; van der Wiel, Moor, Mavinga, Morrow; Delgado, Bradley, Vazquez, Osorio; Altidore, Giovinco

The game wasn’t streamed, and even Twitter reports were pretty scant on details. The two clubs were tied 3-3 in a back-and-forth affair, and then it sounds like TFC got tired in the final period and got schwacked for three goals. Based on the body language of players, I’d imagine that the game had both teams ‘trying things’ on offense, but not killing themselves, defensively. Toronto coach Greg Vanney had a quote about the effects of altitude, and new right back Gregory van der Wiel got his first minutes for the team.

One could look at this and say: TFC showed that their early season fitness isn’t there yet. That might tell the Rapids to play tight for 75 minutes in their Leg 1 matchup, and then turn the match into a horse race for the final 15, a tried-and-true Mastroeni tactic in 2016. However, the Rapids are also unlikely to be fully match fit to start the year, and they also haven’t played a single game above 2,400 feet in Arizona. Still, if I were Anthony Hudson, I would have spent the preseason trying to craft a plan that relies on the Rapids being fitter than TFC and outplaying the Reds in the final 30 minutes.

Here’s Giovinco in this game, hitting another free kick into the back of the net to make it 3-3.

I really, really hope the Rapids have practiced building walls. I mean, damn.

February 13: Toronto FC 4, Cruz Azul 1

I can’t tell you too much about this game, because so little information was provided about it: there was no stream, and the Twitter details were also scant. Jozy Altidore scored two and Giovinco scored two as Toronto rolled. TFC played their best starting XI, which included new signing Auro at left back and Canadian international Jonathan Osorio in what again looks like a 4-4-2.

That midfield of Bradley, Delgado, Osorio, and Vasquez tends to play a 4-4-2 diamond. They either have Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio playing as shuttlers, or play to width and let either of those players roam wide with Jozy Altidore coming to the corner of the 18-yard-box for support and Giovinco coming in behind Jozy with the late run. I know this because they did exactly that with exactly those players against Seattle in MLS Cup, as well as against their other playoff opponents, the New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew.

You can see in the little bit of video provided that Cruz Azul did not start their top team. The guys wandering around on the pitch have numbers like 83, 92, and 67. This game is not evidence that TFC is a terrifying force to be feared. They put a hurt on a bunch of reserves, as expected.

There is one thing I’m getting nervous about though.

Yeah, that’s Giovinco scoring his third free kick of the preseason from 30 yards out. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from TFC’s preseason, it’s that the Rapids cannot concede a foul within 30 yards of their goal, or they will be punished for it.