|Joao Plata of TFC (right), trying to get past Whitecaps' Wes Knight on Saturday, turned in an inspired performance. (Reuters)
TORONTO - Executing a match plan after an unpleasant opening lifted the Reds to their third consecutive Canadian title and into the Champions League after a stunning 3-2 aggregate win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday at BMO Field.
Not only was the performance a testament to the players currently taking on larger roles in place of injured starters, it was the first indication that the club is familiarizing itself with the style new management brought to Toronto.
While the Whitecaps carry one of the weakest records in Major League Soccer, the understanding between TFC players and a willingness to defend as a unit is becoming more evident.
Going with a makeshift back four, including two players who rarely, if ever, have appeared in the centre of the defence, TFC closed down space and gave away next to nothing in terms of entry around the penalty area for 90 minutes.
Despite Joao Plata’s inspired performance and Julian de Guzman’s strong showing, TFC’s ability to collapse a 4-3-3 attacking setup into a disruptive 4-5-1 on defence frustrated the Caps and prevented them from scoring during the run of play through two matches.
With Plata, Nick Soolsma and Mikael Yourassowsky providing two-way service, the Reds consistently defended with 10 men and limited Vancouver to mere half-chances.
While a number of onlookers would call this year’s Voyageurs Cup controversial, in terms of pitch performance, the winning side stood above the rest.
An all-Canadian refereeing crew saw the return David Gantar — the man who inexplicably ejected Tony Tchani for leaving the field against the Columbus Crew earlier this season — in charge of Saturday’s Cup final.
For a tournament that refused completion without controversy, the officials struggled to keep up with a match that was above them.
The assistant that disallowed Javier Martina’s first-half goal was nowhere close to being in position to judge whether the empty-netter crossed the line. And it appeared Gantar missed Plata’s handling just before a foul led to an equalizing penalty.
The Canadian crew put in a decent performance for a majority of the match, but in crucial situations, it didn’t meet the call. In both instances, officials appeared out of position ahead of game-changing decisions that shouldn’t happen.
Around the pitch
What many weren’t talking about following Saturday’s win was the impact Martina had after replacing Maicon Santos in the first half. The Dutchman’s ability to produce well-timed runs is a commentary on how ineffective the Reds are with Santos as a point-man in the current system … Along the same lines, in a move I called more than a month ago, how would this week have finished without Richard Eckersley moving centrally? After watching Doneil Henry play a role in conceding three of Real Salt Lake’s goals two weeks ago, it was a move that had to happen … It will be interesting to see the extent of Ty Harden’s injury. Toronto’s only remaining non-reserve centreback was on crutches during Saturday’s trophy presentation, potentially throwing Henry back into the mix … And there are more changes on the horizon. In what has to be considered the most entertaining and optimistic week in franchise history, how will the inclusion of TFC’s latest designated players alter Toronto’s setup come July 15? Torsten Frings lines up as a defensive midfielder — the spot currently occupied by de Guzman — but the former German international is capable of producing offensively. After a decent showing from de Guzman on the weekend, can the pair co-exist centrally? … It’s unclear whether Danny Koevermans’ introduction will relegate Alan Gordon to the substitute’s bench, but upon winning the Canadian Championship, the prospect of more games will call on the services of all those involved.
Is there any question that newly assigned Vancouver head coach Tom Soehn made several decisions that led to a complete collapse on the weekend?
It’s not the first time Soehn has taken heat for controversial moves that eventually led to his demise. In 2009, Soehn was all but forced out at D.C. United when disputed starting lineups and strange substitutions preceded is exit.
Heading into last Wednesday’s league and Cup matches, Vancouver was a clear favourite against a limping Toronto side that was missing eight potential starters. Rather than take advantage of TFC’s misfortunes, Soehn trotted out a reserve side in a cheeky attempt to rest players ahead of Saturday’s final.
After dropping three crucial league points, Soehn made seven changes to his team’s Cup final lineup that led to a lazy performance and a second straight defeat at the hands of a much more organized club.
In comparison, Toronto head coach Aron Winter made just two changes heading into the weekend.
Time and again, we see instances of managers out-coaching their clubs rather than utilizing the talent they have in every situation. There’s something to be said for management putting faith in players to get the job done no matter how strenuous the situation might be.