Know your enemy! Each week we do a Q&A with our friends around the SB Nation Soccer world to get some insight on their team from those who know them best.
It feels like it’s been ages since our Boys in Blue have graced the confines of Yankee Stadium. I’m pleased to report that the wait is over and MLS is back in action. Wednesday night, NYC FC faces a huge test against second place Toronto FC.
Toronto has been a force to be reckoned with all season, boasting one of the league’s most dynamic and star-studded rosters. The team has excelled defensively, limiting their opponents to just 19 goals in 19 matches, tied for best in the Eastern Conference.
James Grossi of Waking the Red took our questions this week in preparation for the match. James talks about the impact of Jozy Altidore’s absence, the newcomers in Toronto making a difference, and how the team unlocked NYC in a very forgettable postseason series.
Q. The biggest news coming into this match for Toronto has got to be Jozy Altidore being called to the USMNT squad for Gold Cup duty. I'm doubly thrilled: First in his being included in the team, which is well deserved, and second that New York gets to avoid dealing with his goal scoring ability and excellent hold up play. How will Toronto replace Jozy against NYC FC on Wednesday? What does Jordan Hamilton, his likely replacement, bring to the table?
A. One cannot simple replace Jozy Altidore. There is no other player in the league that has his combination of qualities. As noted his goal threat and hold up play are crucial assets, but so too is his ability to link up, an understanding forged with Sebastian Giovinco over the past three years that makes the duo such a formidable problem for opposition.
In Ben Spencer, another candidate to start up top with Giovinco, they have a player in the model of Altidore, a mix of size and mobility, though he is still finding his way after a devastating knee injury set back his progress. He saw a few minutes against Columbus in a big win earlier this season and cannot be ruled out, but many are expecting Jordan Hamilton to get the start.
Hamilton is a very interesting player. He signed a first team deal with TFC in 2014 after several years in the academy. That makes him one of the longest serving members of the club, alongside Ashtone Morgan and Jonathan Osorio, though he has never gotten the kind of minutes those two have contributed. It often needs reminding that despite his lengthy tenure, he just turned 21 in March. If and when he does breakthrough into being a regular starter – not easy given the talent ahead of him – he will mark a new age for TFC, if not MLS as a whole: a player truly developed in house over a long time horizon.
He's a big boy and getting bigger – filling out, not actually getting taller, quick, but not a speedster. His knack is for finding space, being in the right place, and knowing when to be where.
In 91 minutes over six appearances this season he has two goals from three shots. It would have been three from three were it not for a fine save from former teammate Joe Bendik in Orlando when last they played. Granted it's a small sample size, but that sort of precision is not something that should be ignored.
But, he will not be a replacement for Altidore. Toronto will likely look to play a little differently. Hamilton will likely lead the line, creating space for Giovinco to drop deep and get on the ball, but he tends to drift into wide spots more than Altidore, who gets right on the centre-backs, daring them to attempt to beat him in the battle.
Do not be surprised if Toronto has a plan to hit quickly on counters perhaps a little more than usual. They will have their fair share of possession, as is their wont, but they are on the road after all, and New York will have to open up to work through the back-line.
Q. Exiting this midsummer break, Toronto find themselves tied for second in the Eastern Conference, again demonstrating that they are among the small group that should be competing for an MLS Cup, year-in, year-out. We know about Giovinco, Bradley, and Altidore already, so who are the lesser known players in Toronto that have been instrumental in getting TFC to (nearly) the top of the Conference?
A. Focusing on three of the newcomers – presumably the likes of Drew Moor and Justin Morrow are familiar enough: Victor Vazquez, Chris Mavinga, and Raheem Edwards.
In Vazquez, Toronto have brought in an attacking midfielder who can single-handedly prove the difference in a tight match, something he was expressly recruited to provide. Tim Bezbatchenko called him a locker-picker and Vazquez himself has repeatedly professed his preference for providing assists over scoring goals, though he has a few of those as well. His ten assists this season tops the league.
His pedigree, a member of the same Barcelona class that saw the development of Leo Messi, Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique, and Sergio Busquets, to name a few, is unrivaled. And, we've seen a lot of his qualities half-way through his first season in MLS.
Mavinga too has a lofty past. Brought up at Paris Saint-Germain and bought by Liverpool as a teenager, the French-born, Congolese-international saw his career stifled in Europe. But his raw potential was always there. He himself has declared his passion for the game reborn here in Toronto.
Fielded mostly as the left centre-back in Toronto's three-man back-line, Mavinga is a physical force. Lanky, he has a knack for getting a boot on the ball regardless of how well it is shielded and with his speed, he can recover from even the most stressed positions. Attackers have had very little luck in getting down his side.
His introduction to MLS was rough, getting taken advantage of by Atlanta's lightning attack, but since then he has not put a foot wrong, regaining the trust of fans ready to point out any flaws.
And Edwards, though less heralded than the others, may be the most electric of the lot. He excelled in his two years with TFC II in USL, earning a first team contract in the preseason, but few expected he would hit the league with the force that he has.
It is his energy and sheer willingness to try that has won him the hearts of fans and pundits alike in Toronto and beyond. He plays the game the way people like: with verve, with passion, with a flair for the dramatic, and a passion to attack. He's a lot of fun to watch.
Q. As you happened to note in your questions for HRB, Toronto did in fact beat up on NYC FC in New York's first postseason appearance last year. I will remind you that Toronto is still yet to beat NYC in MLS regular season play, so I'm wondering what you think changed last season from the regular season inability of Toronto to beat New York to their dismantling of the Boys in Blue in the postseason. Did TFC unlock something last year that will help them beat New York, especially in a tricky place like Yankee Stadium, or are we in for a whole new game on Wednesday?
A. Regular season, smegular smeason. Playoffs is where it counts... but fair enough.
The obvious thing that must be noted before progressing is that TFC underwent a formational change as the playoff began that, in part, led to that lopsided victory. Greg Vanney and company had tinkered with a 3-5-2 (or 5-3-2, as it has variously been described), but implemented the system as the primary option towards the end of last season.
Whether that will be a factor on Wednesday remains to be seen. Doubtless Patrick Vieira will have spent the last few weeks – if not months, roughly eight or so – pondering a response.
It is by no means an impervious system. As with all formations, it has strengths and weaknesses. It can leave way too much space out wide when caught up-field and forced to defend a counter. And the three-man midfield can be overwhelmed.
Speaking this week, Toronto pointed to their ability to press and dictate the game that proved so pivotal in that second leg in New York last November; not to mention that the early goal in the second leg precipitated the chain reaction of more. But they also cautioned that NYC FC are not the same team, replacing Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard with Alex Ring and Yangel Herrera, providing much more active defensive ability in the middle of the park.
In addition, the limited dimensions of Yankee Stadium's pitch compresses it all. Vanney called it 'hyper-football', with dangerous players at the edge of the box in flash, turnovers leading to chances in fractions of a second rather than seconds.
Looking to the past to predict the future is always a dangerous prospect. Regardless of what the record says, these two have had some competitive matches, a call here, a bounce there, and the past would be different.
We will have to wait and see what the next match, or two, brings.
Alex Bono; (3-5-2) Eriq Zavaleta, Drew Moor, Chris Mavinga; Oyvind Alseth, Marky Delgado, Benoit Cheyrou, Victor Vazquez, Ashtone Morgan; Sebastian Giovinco, Jordan Hamilton.
2-2; playing this one conservatively, which may be a mistake. TFC are missing far too many influential pieces for comfort, but that has been said about this group before.
Thanks again to James for answering our questions— be sure to check out our reverse fixture over at Waking the Red. Have your own take on the match? Let us hear it in the comments section!