The level of anticipation before each new year of Major League Soccer keeps rising. Feverish MLS fans were given an early taster of the 2012 season last night as Toronto F.C. and Los Angeles Galaxy battled to a 2-2 tie in their CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final first leg.
Aron Winter’s side showed its attacking quality in the opening stages to establish a 2-0 lead over the reigning MLS champions before a fervid crowd of 47,658 at Rogers Centre, formerly known as the SkyDome. The Reds’ failure to deal with an increasing barrage of crosses ultimately gave the Galaxy parity going into next week’s second leg at Home Depot Center.
Winter opted for his alternative 3-3-1-3 formation with German designated player Torsten Frings stationed between center-backs Miguel Aceval and Ty Harden in a three-man defense. Full-backs Ashtone Morgan and Richard Eckersley had responsibility to move into midfield to support the outnumbered Terry Dunfield.
Rookie Luis Silva started in the withdrawn forward role against his hometown team with experienced Dutchman Danny Koevermans up top. Joao Plata and Ryan Johnson provided the width in attack.
There were no surprises from Los Angeles Galaxy. Nine of the starters from last November’s MLS Cup Final kept their places in Bruce Arena’s favored 4-4-2 line-up. Former Toronto defender Andrew Boyens replaced the injured Omar Gonzalez at center-back and returning striker Edson Buddle came in for Adam Cristman.
A major drawback with Winter’s formation is that his full-backs are more comfortable in a four-man defense and tend to stay deep. That concedes space in the midfield around Dunfield. Robbie Keane exploited this as early as the third minute.
The Irish international attacked the “D” at the edge of Toronto’s penalty area after swapping passes with Mike Magee and forced Stefan Frei into conceding the first of what would be many corners.
A slack pass by Dunfield in the 7th minute opened that space again for the Galaxy to exploit, but Keane failed to execute a difficult pass that would have sent Magee in on goal.
Toronto’s attacking threat then surfaced spectacularly as the Canadian champions surged into a 2-0 lead. Frings’ experience and reading of the game allowed him to step up, win the ball in midfield and release Johnson on a quick break down the right. Plata controlled the Jamaican’s deep cross and forced Sean Franklin into conceding a corner kick. Frings’ 12th-minute inswinger wasn’t cleared and the ball fell kindly for Johnson to volley past Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders.
Silva’s elusive positioning saw him doubling the lead on 17 minutes. Juninho and David Beckham were struggling to track the 23-year-old’s movement. The former neglected his defensive duties by allowing Silva to glide into the penalty area as Frings shaped to cross. Silva had to generate his own pace from the German’s deep, hanging ball, and he expertly planted his header into Saunders’ bottom left corner.
Galaxy Fights Back
The Galaxy was struggling to get Beckham on the ball in open play despite the space in center midfield. Set pieces provided his only opportunity to influence the game. Frei clawed out a 19th-minute corner from the Englishman that almost swerved into the net. The Swiss goalkeeper couldn’t prevent Magee from halving the deficit 10 minutes later.
There seemed little danger as Landon Donovan raced on to Beckham’s chipped pass toward the right corner flag, with Franklin arriving in support. Morgan had tracked back into position but hesitated in trying to block’s Franklin’s delivery. The cross skimmed Frei’s fingertips before Magee steered it into the net.
Another Beckham corner on 38 minutes caused panic as Toronto failed to act decisively. The Reds’ defense has enough height to attack the ball, but there seemed to be confusion between Frings calling for an offside and others tracking their opponents.
Toronto Concedes Space
Magee was next to exploit the space at the edge of Toronto’s penalty box just before half-time, cutting in from the left to get a shot away as the three central defenders converged around Buddle.
Keane almost found an equalizer from a similar spot on 57 minutes. The former Tottenham Hotspur man drifted in from the left, worked a return pass with Buddle, and curled a right-foot shot just beyond the far post.
Winter responded a minute later by making an early substitution – Plata made way for Reggie Lambe. This didn’t alter Toronto’s shape as Johnson moved to the left wing with Lambe taking his position on the right.
The home side’s defending was beginning to unravel. Keane snuck away at a throw-in on 61 minutes but snatched his shot across the face of goal, and he almost got free again on 65 minutes from a simple flick-on as Toronto’s defense retreated. Harden collided with Frei, knocking the ball from the goalkeeper’s grasp, but he was able to recover.
Toronto’s full-backs were still looking to push forward, but their offensive limitations meant the hosts couldn’t find a third goal. Eckersley found himself with three excellent crossing options in the box on 67 minutes. He opted for a square pass across the midfield, didn’t complete it, and a speedier counter-attacking team than Los Angeles could easily have benefited.
Eckersley spurned another attack on 72 minutes, slicing a speculative shot well off target when he had much better options in support. The former Manchester United trainee then made a safe pass at the edge of the Galaxy’s penalty area on 76 minutes when Johnson was in space inside the box. Bad choices were hindering Toronto’s chances of closing the game out, but still they created chances.
Koevermans got across A.J. DeLaGarza at the near post to meet Johnson’s cross from the left. The Dutchman couldn’t steer his effort on target.
Another problem with Morgan and Eckersley’s defensive preference is that Winter’s 3-3-1-3 can quickly become a 5-4-1. Both full-backs increasingly tucked alongside the center-backs in the closing 10 minutes, forcing Toronto’s attackers to drop as Galaxy passed the ball around unchallenged in the midfield.
Toronto were by no means hanging on, but the concession of more corners ultimately proved to be their undoing. Harden allowed Buddle to climb above him from Beckham’s 88th-minute outswinger. The striker’s header was blocked, but the ball eventually squirmed to Donovan to fire home from three yards.
Toronto’s attacking side showed that they could be a threat in the Eastern Conference this season. More attacking wing-backs, in the mould of Sporting Kansas City’s Chance Myers, would help keep the pressure off the defense if Winter chooses to operate with this system. Otherwise a conventional Dutch 4-3-3 system looks his best option with Frings restored to the midfield.
Los Angeles created enough opportunities to deserve to be level going into the return fixture. Still, they can count themselves fortunate given the scrambled nature of Donovan’s late equalizer.