By: Mike Newell
At the beginning of the pre-season, much was made of Aron Winter‘s new approach to TFC’s on pitch tactics. He preached a possession game utilizing a 4-3-3 formation, with an emphasis on passing and good decision making with the ball. Most supporters and journalists who followed the club and knew the makeup of the roster understood that this transition would take a good deal of time. Although selling the public on a more offensive seemed to work, the real issue with the club would be at the back. Entering the first game of the season against expansion, but hardly new Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday expectations were mixed as to what kind of team supporters would see for the 2011 season.
The first thing that struck me when the team sheet was announced was the back four Winter had chosen to start the game with. He went with a defence of Dan Gargan at right back, Nana Attakora and Ty Harden at centre back and what was the biggest surprise, recent hold out Adrian Cann at left back. As the clubs 2010 most valuable player Cann was expected to anchor the defence from centre back; especially as he and Attakora had developed a decent partnership over the past year. Cann was playing completely out of position and it showed throughout the game and especially on the first Whitecap goal as he was completely out of position on Davide Cuiumiento’s cross into the box which led to Eric Hassli‘s half volley past a helpless Stefan Frei. Cann’s lack of pace lack of pace made it fairly easy for Cuiumiento to get by him and dictate the game with his precise passing.
The other issue with Winter’s defensive selection was the pairing of Attakora and Harden against the physically bigger and stronger Vancouver forward Eric Hassli. Nana will I believe will become an excellent defender in the MLS, however it became clear early on that he and Harden were going to have trouble handling Hassli. On both of Hassli’s goals his strength and movement cause the defenders massive problems. This is where the size of Cann would have come in handy for the relatively small team.
TFC’s management has stressed over the past 6 weeks leading into the season opener that patience was needed while the players adapted to the club’s new philosophy of play. A key to playing the 4-3-3 is having players on the pitch that can make a decisive pass and most importantly make good decisions. Saturday was evidence that the team has a long way to go before this system is anywhere near what Winter would like it to be. There were countless turnovers especially from the back four who are still not adept to making as many passes as they are now required to do. Harden and Gargan were guilty of making poor passes that lead to Whitecap chances, Harden making a horrible pass that was easily intercepted by Atiba Harris which lead to an open break on goal. Gargan’s intercepted pass lead to Vancouver’s third goal as Russel Teibert’s pass put Wes Knight and Hassli clear on goal with the latter finishing off the move.
What was very alarming to any TFC supporters was how disorganized the side looked at times in the midfield and back four. Not taking anything away form Vancouver’s performance, but 3 of the 4 goals were due to serious lapses in TFC’s judgement. The midfield did not help the back for much with bad defensive positioning and sloppy turnovers which left the defenders out of position.
With a lot of negative play getting the focus, and rightfully so, there were some bright spots for the Reds going forward. For one Winter did get his wish in regards to possession, 61% of possession to be exact. In the first 30 minutes The Reds looked dangerous on the left flank. Newcomer Javier Martina was bright in his attacking play and teased a few good low crosses into to box, and showed some creativity on the wings that this club has rarely ever seen. Jacob Peterson’s attacking play looked decent, now deployed more centrally he made some good passes and liked up well with the front players. Macon Santos had the thankless task of holding put the ball and bringing players into the game, but did it reasonably well; He also struck an absolute net buster late in the game for TFC’s second goal. For all his off the field dramatics Captain Dwayne DeRosario was best outfield player for the Reds once again. His great finish for the first goal showed TFC fans why they still need him, and he did a great job linking the play, especially out wide. However TFC’s star of the game was kepper Stefan Frei. Without the third year stopper Vancouver could have scored 5 or 6.
Next week’s home opener against Portland will be a big test for this club. Although supporters have seem to have given the club some leeway in terms of implementing the new system, if they turn in a result like Saturday that leeway will evaporate very quickly.