So within a couple weeks of RSL coming up short in MLS Cup, all the attention around MLS shifted north of the border as Toronto FC started spending money like a rapper in a strip club, the MLS version of making it rain. Gilberto was signed as a DP, but he was the appetizer for their fans, as the team would announce both Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe would be joining them heading into the 2014 MLS season. Now Toronto wasn’t the first team to spend big buck on Mega DP’s, but they were the first to do so on this scale of both transfer fees and salaries.
As a RSL fan, I have seen a club built a very different way, a way that has seen a consistency over the last 5 plus seasons that have kept them at the top levels of MLS. During that time we saw LA push and lead the league in creating the DP rule, then the two DP rule and eventually the league settled on 3 DP’s per team. We have seen big names come before Toronto made their moves, we had Beckham, Henry, Marquez, Blanco, Keane, and others come and go with varying levels of success. Clubs have most often found themselves in one of two quickly diverging paths, spending huge amounts of money on a select few and hoping to fill in pieces around them (LA, NY, SEA), or spreading their money around more players building deep rosters and selectively using the DP rule when needed (RSL, SKC, HOU, POR). Both types of teams have found success in both the regular and post seasons of MLS over the last few years.
Now Toronto wants to join in on the fun, the second method didn’t work for them so they are trying to spend their way to success, and while it may not be the way I think teams should be built, I don’t blame them. Since joining the league in 2007, they have yet to make it to the post season, in fact if their had been relegation in place TFC wouldn’t be in MLS. Making that worse is the fact that TFC has had amazing fan support from day one, so do I blame their ownership for making a huge shift in spending? Nope not at all.
On Saturday night TFC will play their 3rd match of this new era for their club, and let’t be honest none of us know what to expect. Do we see the team that quickly put up two on Seattle and then held on for a 2-1 win, or the club that struggled to a 1-0 win at home against DC United? Of course there are also some questions about RSL, after a 1-0 opening day win over the LA Galaxy, RSL lost a 3-1 lead at San Jose and settled for a 3-3 draw, and then last weekend after getting a 1-0 lead over LA in RSL’s home opener the team again had to settle for a draw, this time 1-1. So what will we see on Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium?
So beyond the contrast in how the teams have been built is the very clear difference in how they play, and for me there are two things that really stand out. The first is passing, in each of their first two matches TFC have had under 300 passes (266 against Seattle, 279 against DC United), while RSL is rarely under 400 passes per match (387 at LA, 462 at SJ, and 414 vs LA) and beyond just total number of passes, RSL’s completion rate hovers around 80% in almost every match, while TFC had a 72% completion rate in their first match but just 62% last week against DC United.
The second is what comes as a result of the first, high completion rates and lots of passes lead to a lot of possession, which indicates often which team is in control of the pace of the match. Possession however isn’t always an indication of which team wins, it does indicate style, and often which team is playing a more offensive style vs a defensive style. RSL has had possession rates of 48.9, 54.9, and 51.2, TFC by comparison had rates of 32.3 and 38 percent in their first two matches.
This results in that clash of styles, RSL likes to keep possession and push the match and be the aggressor, TFC have shown that they want to sit back more, defend and then attack when they get chances. The TFC style hasn’t really been tested by strong offensive teams early in the year, Seattle’s struggles to score go back to the end of last season and while DC United have brought in Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola, they are still a team trying to adapt to a slew of new players. RSL will have no such issues, and while the injury to Joao Plata will keep him out of the match, we saw Alvaro Saborio open his scoring account last weekend. The midfield of RSL has become one of the more productive ones in MLS, with 25 goals scored from the midfield last year and 2 in their first 3 matches of 2014.
When it comes to scoring early in this 2014 season the difference between the two sides seems clear, all three of Toronto’s goals have been scored by Defoe, four different players have scored for RSL (Plata 2, Beckerman, Mulholland, and Saborio 1 each). On Saturday their will be a lot of attention paid to Defoe by Chris Schuler and Nat Borchers, who have proven that when healthy they are one of the top pairs of centerbacks in MLS. It will be interesting to see how that matchup goes over the course of the match.
There are a few big wildcard factors heading into the match on Saturday, for Toronto the late injury to Jonathan Osorio on Friday could be as big if not bigger than RSL’s loss of Plata, Osorio has been the linking player between their defense and Michael Bradley. He accounted for about 15% of all the TFC passes with his most common partner being Bradley. Losing him could interrupt what little possession and passing rhythm TFC has been able to muster.
RSL will look to Alvaro Saborio to have a big match, Sabo has scored twice against TFC in the 418 minutes he has played against them, but Sabo is a unique kind of player, he tends to be much better when he is mad or has a chip on his shoulder. TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen provided that chip by publicly calling for Sabo to be suspended for his yellow card tackle on DeLaGarza, I am not sure if Nelsen was just trying to get his name on people’s tongues or not but it is the first time I remember a MLS coach calling for that type of action for a match his team wasn’t involved in. It might just have lit a fire in Sabo that will come back to bite Nelsen and TFC.
Finally there is the officiating, and while there will always be some questionable calls in every match, you hope that big game changing calls are gotten correctly and in each of the first 3 RSL matches there have been huge calls gotten wrong, a Mulholland goal called off in LA, a Wondolowski offside goal allowed, and a very clearly missed PK call as Gargan held Sabo in the area last weekend. Saturday night will see Baldomero Toledo in charge of the match, and while you can’t question his experience (167 previous MLS matches), he has shown 60 red cards and 61 times he has pointed to the PK spot, so you have a better than 1 in 3 chance of him making a game changing call, let hope if he does that he gets it right.
Two players to watch for me are, Dwayne DeRosario for TFC, DeRo is always dangerous and has proven a thorn in the side for RSL on multiple occasions in the past. For RSL with a lot of injuries up top, I think Luke Mulholland could get a chance to really shine either as a starter if the formation changes or off the bench to give RSL some pace and offense later in the match.
This should be a very entertaining match, 6-7 players that will be on the pitch will be playing in the World Cup this summer and that speaks to the ever improving quality of MLS rosters. I think RSL will use their chemistry and eventually the elevation to push TFC in a way they haven’t been pushed yet this season, and that should result in a solid RSL win. I am going with 3-1 as the final score and the scorned Saborio with the brace and Luis Gil with the other for RSL, and I am going to pick Bradley to get the goal for TFC.
That’s How I See It