Head Coach Martin Rennie, whose Vancouver team played 4-3-3 most of last season, started with the 4-2-3-1 formation they trialed in pre-season and there were no major surprises in their starting XI after it was announced captain Jay DeMerit was fit to play. Turned out he was far from fully fit and left after seven minutes, replaced by Brad Rusin.
Debut boss Ryan Nelsen opted for a tight and compact version of a 4-4-1-1 with his wide players in deep positions ensuring it wasn’t quite a 4-2-3-1, although that was the plan when they had the ball. Third overall pick Kyle Bekker played just off Robert Earnshaw in attack but made up a midfield three when not in possession.
Lambe vs Rochat
The first half was uninspiring with both teams creating little which meant Toronto FC gained far more positives than Vancouver. The overall speed of the game suited the visitors who did a good job recognizing Vancouver’s threat down the left. Left back Alain Rochat stepped up a couple of times inside the first 15 minutes and played two excellent balls into a wide area behind the advancing Richard Eckersley for the speedy Kekutah Manneh and Darren Mattocks to run into. However, TFC reacted well by having Reggie Lambe come tighter on Rochat and that, with the combination of Rochat committing two needless fouls, pinned the left back deeper and by the end of the half the Rochat-Manneh combination on the left had been nullified with Manneh switching sides with the lively Daigo Kobayashi.
Rennie changes it up
During his half-time interview Rennie said he was disappointed with the amount of balls his team gave away in Toronto’s half and when he got to the dressing room to meet his players he informed rookie Manneh he would be removed for Nigel Reo-Coker. Manneh, who lost the ball 13 times in the first half, hadn’t had a terrible half but was too often in the positions Mattocks needed to be. The decision to bring on Reo-Coker and the change in tempo that Vancouver brought out in the second half turned the game in their favor. Reo-Coker played in the middle next to Gershon Koffie while Jun Marques Davidson sat deeper to stop Toronto FC playing in between the lines (more on that later). With the fluidity of Kobayashi’s movement it was effectively a 4-3-3 although the front three rotated so often it was effectively a 4-1-2-anywhere.
Having kept pace with the home side for the first 45 minutes, Toronto struggled to get in the game in the opening 15 minutes of the second half and it was no surprise to see Vancouver get rewarded for their dominance with a goal shortly before the hour mark. Reo-Coker’s inclusion ensured they kept the ball more in the opponent’s half but he also immediately struck up a good relationship with YP Lee on the right side. With Reo-Coker shielding him, and Marques deeper, Lee had more licence to get forward in the second half and it proved to be key in the goal. When defender Andy O’Brien hit a long, hopeful ball down the right it appeared Toronto had it covered as they initially won the header but Lee, advanced in a forward position, won the key second ball. As you can see below, when he picks up the ball Toronto FC are still in a very good position with four players marking the key space in front of him.
The next two seconds develop and the off the ball runs by Kobayashi and Mattocks are key as they pull two defenders there way, allowing Miller and Lee to play a simple one-two between themselves that then opens up the space for Lee to run into (that was previously protected by the four defenders).
Lee times his run perfectly and is now into the danger zone, vacated by Toronto, drawing four defenders all towards him just a split second before he makes a key pass to Kobayashi who is bright, alert and ready for the ball despite being closely marked by Eckersley. At this point Koffie has already made the run from deep, untracked.
Kobayashi sees Koffie’s run and by the time the midfielder touches the ball for the first time in the buildup he is in a wonderful position vacated by Toronto all because of the excellent play of his teammates. Koffie takes one touch and a nice finish to score the game’s only goal as you can see here.
It was a goal that is sure to have delighted Rennie, as his full back got forward and won a key second ball, his star pupil Mattocks showed the importance of off-the-ball running and Koffie, fresh off a new contract extension, had the ability and desire to get forward and support the attack.
From Toronto FC’s point of view it was a goal that was always going to be difficult to come back from. In the first half they excelled when Vancouver’s confidence was shaken, pressing them high and stopping goalkeeper Joe Cannon from throwing the ball out to defenders, but as the game wore on a now confident Whitecaps just had enough quality to see the game out. They were certainly helped by the inclusion of Reo-Coker, who completed 38 of 46 pass attempts, as well as Davidson sitting deeper to stop the impressive Bekker getting into space.
Toronto FC will be disappointed, not surprised, by the loss and will be able to take some positives away from the game and top of that list will be Bekker. Rarely does an MLS rookie require an opponent to monitor him from the get-go and the need for Davidson to sit deeper and closer to his centre-backs was designed to stop the 22-year-old from finding space. In the first half there were a few examples of the young Canadian making runs in between the lines.
Picks up the ball and comes deep….
Plays it off and makes the run past the referee towards the space….
Finds the room in between the lines (see Vancouver’s two banks of four) ready to receive the pass….
In the second half those banks of four were gone and Bekker didn’t see quite as much space although his superb deliveries from set pieces made him a constant threat throughout.
Vancouver stay home and welcome Columbus to BC Place next weekend hoping t gain some momentum off this victory. It is clear they have a very technical player in Kobayashi who can make a difference at this level no matter the formation, which is now up in the air after the much-improved second half showing.
Toronto FC head home and welcome one of the league’s best teams in Sporting Kansas City to Rogers Centre next Saturday. The nature of the opponent and the quality of players available to them will once again make them huge underdogs but with expectations low they have things to build from after this opener, particularly with all of their new players not disappointing in this game.