Toronto Survives Defensive Tightrope To Stun Galaxy

Written by Ian Thomson

Toronto F.C. became the first Canadian team to reach the final four of the CONCACAF Champions League after beating Los Angeles Galaxy 2-1 at Home Depot Center Wednesday.

That sealed a 4-3 aggregate win for The Reds, who led the series for two hours over the two games.

Head Coach Aron Winter’s offensive players showed further signs of their improvement with two well-executed goals from Ryan Johnson and Nick Soolsma. The defense needs to solidify if they are to overcome Mexican side Santos Laguna in their semi-final.

Approach

Galaxy: Meyer for Boyens was Bruce Arena's sole change from the first leg

Galaxy Head Coach Bruce Arena made one change from last week’s 2-2 tie in Toronto. Rookie Tommy Meyer kept his place alongside A.J. DeLaGarza at center-back after Saturday’s 3-1 humbling by Real Salt Lake. Andrew Boyens remained on the bench.

Winter made three personnel changes. Designated player Julian de Guzman and forward Soolsma returned from suspension in place of Terry Dunfield and Luis Silva. Milos Kocic replaced Stefan Frei in goal.

Silva posed problems in the first leg with his elusive running between the Galaxy’s defense and midfield. Winter sacrificed this by moving Johnson into a more disciplined center-midfield role alongside De Guzman. The benefit was greater protection in front of Toronto’s defense – an area left exposed last week.

Toronto: Silva's absence meant more defensive cover but reduced attacking threat

Torsten Frings stayed between center-backs Miguel Aceval and Ty Harden in a three-man defense. The former German international was tasked with setting Toronto’s high defensive line and offside trap to counter the Galaxy’s long balls. Ashtone Morgan and Richard Eckersley were again assigned with supporting Toronto’s forwards from the wings.

Opening Stages

Toronto are a work-in-progress defensively. New signing Aceval is still establishing his center-back partnership with Harden, and Winter’s formational flexibility means that they need to be comfortable with or without Frings. Galaxy tested this unfamiliarity early and often with long balls into the open field behind Toronto’s high line.

David Beckham tried to exploit Frings’ lack of pace in the sixth minute with a long chip for Mike Magee to chase. The former Werder Bremen man had a shorter distance to cover as he retreated with Magee cutting in from the left. He coolly headed the ball safely back to Kocic.

Edson Buddle dragged a shot wide in the ninth minute after beating the offside trap, and Kocic thwarted Robbie Keane on 17 minutes after the Irish international had broken clear.

Toronto struggled with cross balls during the first leg. Galaxy weren’t able to get wide into good crossing positions this time as Frings repeatedly led his men to the center circle, squeezing the game into a 30-yard zone when the hosts were in possession. Beckham dropped deep to launch long balls over Toronto’s defense instead.

Sean Franklin reached Beckham’s ball down the right on 24 minutes as Magee charged into to penalty area. The defender delayed his cross by stepping back inside Morgan, allowing Frings to recover his position and head clear.

Beckham skewed a shot high and wide on 26 minutes after finding himself in advance of Toronto’s discordant defense. Magee hit the back of the net a minute later only to be ruled offside. It looked a marginal decision with Morgan failing to step out in synch with his teammates.

Frings The Accordionist

Toronto’s shape quickly expands when they gain possession. Frings drops deep, center-backs Aceval and Harden move to the touchlines, and Morgan and Eckersley push high up the wings. That allowed the visitors to launch quick counter-attacks after Donovan and Magee pushed forward.

Joao Plata and Morgan enjoyed some early success down the left side, but both provided crosses that were too close to Josh Saunders in the Los Angeles goal. Eckersley’s first raid down the right led to Toronto’s opening goal on 34 minutes.

Soolsma tucked in behind the overlapping Englishman and flighted a magnificent cross from Eckersley’s cutback to the back post. Johnson expertly looped his header back over Saunders into the far corner.

Suddenly Toronto were on the front foot. Morgan almost found Danny Koevermans on 38 minutes with his left-wing cross and Plata narrowly missed the Dutch target man from the other flank after combining with Soolsma.

Winter Hands Initiative Back To Los Angeles

Winter replaced Plata with defensive midfielder Dunfield at half-time, just as Toronto’s wingers were beginning to threaten. The former Manchester City youth team player left his teammates short-handed minutes into the second half while removing an extra shirt and the Galaxy almost took advantage.

Magee flicked Beckham’s deep cross on to Keane at the back post. Kocic quickly narrowed the angle to block the Irishman’s shot.

Galaxy’s long balls were increasingly menacing and Toronto’s back-pedaling defenders couldn’t risk mistiming their tackles. Keane, Donovan and Buddle couldn’t quite link up after another Beckham delivery on 53 minutes. The equalizer came two minutes later from a similar move.

Magee’s diagonal ball found Donovan racing clear of Aceval on the right. Harden sprinted back toward his own goal to cut out the Galaxy midfielder’s cross to Keane, but inadvertently guided the ball into his own net.

Donovan showed exquisite touch on the run to control Beckham’s long pass on 60 minutes before releasing Franklin on the overlap. The defender’s cross was fractionally too high for Magee to direct on target.

If I Could Turn Back Time

Silva replaced De Guzman on 63 minutes as Winter bolstered his side’s attacking threat. Toronto regained the lead within four minutes after great work down the left by Johnson. Soolsma darted in from the far touchline to meet the Jamaican’s cross with a sweeping half-volley into Saunders’ far corner.

Winter threw on defender Aaron Maund for the injured Koevermans on 69 minutes but kept the shape of his team with Johnson moving up front, Morgan pushing forward on the left and Aceval moving wider.

Silva should have finished the tie a minute later on a 3-vs-2 break after being set up by Johnson. The rookie sidestepped A.J. DeLaGarza before sliding his shot beyond Saunders’ far post.

Kocic stood up to Keane’s attempted chip on 74 minutes after Maund gave the ball away at the edge of his own penalty area. Galaxy cranked up the pressure late on with Beckham moving wider to the right to swing crosses into the box. Toronto weren’t about to let their lead slip like they did in the first leg.

Conclusion

Toronto’s attacking improvements are clear to see. Consistency at the back is required if the defenders are to develop an understanding. Winter’s formation alternates between 3-4-3, 3-3-1-3, 5-2-3 and 5-4-1. A settled back line in a 4-3-3 system still looks to be the best solution for Morgan, Aceval, Harden and Eckersely.

Frings excels at sweeper given his experience and leadership, but the three-man defense results in a cat-and-mouse game where Toronto’s offside trap is a poor decision (either by a defender or assistant referee) away from being punished.

Los Angeles have created enough opportunities to have won their three games this year. A failure by their midfield and defense to track the oppositions’ movement leaves them still searching for their first win.