MLS IN REVIEW: Unpacking Toronto & Montreal losses as Whitecaps stabilize
Canada's worst opening two weeks in MLS ever – go us!
This season is being tough for 🇨🇦 teams, with just 2 out of 18 points and a record of 3 goals scored and 13 goals received.— MLS Data Viz (@MLSViz) March 6, 2022
Worst performance since these three teams are competing in the league.#TFCLive #VWFC #CFMTL #MLS pic.twitter.com/4cQzYyeeJU
There was a general sense of optimism around these teams on opening day – certainly moreso than last year – but performances have quickly brought us back down to earth.
Let's get into what's gone wrong (and a few things going right).
Toronto FC 1-4 New York Red Bulls
In hindsight, the Red Bulls were just about the worst opponent TFC could have faced for its home opener – a team totally content to let the Reds have the ball and kill them in transition, and very good at it. I'm writing this prior to the Sunday night game between LAFC and Portland and so far, New York's two outings this season rank 50th and 54th out of 54 for passes attempted.
They will let you knock the ball around and, if you're not sharp and purposeful, make your own bed.
Red Bulls coach Gerhard Struber made a clever change, too, bringing in a second striker in Tom Barlow alongside Patryk Klimala. They were told to stay high and when TFC sent their full-backs forward – as they did often against FC Dallas, which I'm sure Struber noticed – it left Barlow and Klimala two-on-two with Shane O'Neill and Carlos Salcedo.
New York's first two goals both came from the strikers occupying the centre-backs and Lewis Morgan arriving as the third man. Add a couple of goals from set-piece situations and you have an ugly day.
One big question…
Will Bob Bradley continue to instruct his two young, newly converted full-backs to fly forwards? If TFC was very good at stopping or at least slowing down attacks further away from their own goal this might be viable, but they aren't – at least not yet.
In the short term, selecting a more defensive full-back on one flank or even adding a third centre-back may steady the ship. It may also provide Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty and/or Jacob Shaffelburg with more confidence that they will not be at risk of being burned every time they venture into the opposition half.
I'm singling out…
I don't think many looked at Luca Petrasso as more than a deep reserve before Saturday, but he has changed that in a hurry.
The younger brother of York United's Michael has been – stop me if you've heard this one before – converted to left-back over the past couple of years but started further forward here and provided some valuable old-fashioned wide play. It was direct, uncomplicated, and effective, and I'll be surprised if he's not straight back in the XI next weekend.
Bradley settled on a first XI in preseason. Then he made two simple changes for the Red Bulls, dropping Chris Mavinga and Deandre Kerr after both struggled in Dallas.
After a result like this, it will be interesting to see if he makes more significant alterations. Could he be tempted into a reorganization of the back line? He may not be ready to go the full 90 yet, but what about pushing Alejandro Pozuelo or Jonathan Osorio further forward to get Ralph Priso into the team alongside Michael Bradley?
CF Montreal 1-2 Philadelphia Union
The times of Montreal's goals conceded this season: 49, 53, 56, 59.
The first 15 minutes of the second half have been a disaster for Wilfried Nancy's side. They were good against Orlando City in the first 45 before collapsing, and they had been just OK against Philadelphia but led 1-0.
This is not a totally new problem. While Montreal only conceded eight goals in that specific 15-minute spell in the 2021 campaign, they did concede 66% of their goals in the second half.
Montreal trailed at half-time by more than one goal only once last season, to Shield winners New England.
But they also dropped 21 points from winning positions, fourth-most in MLS. It has felt as if this team is well set up by Nancy from the first whistle but struggles to adapt to opposition tactical changes and shifts in momentum.
One big question…
With all that being said, could we be talking about a different result if not for some questionable refereeing?
Minutes before the Union equalized, Djordje Mihailovic appeared to have made it 2-0 with a brilliant solo goal. It was quickly ruled out after a VAR review for a foul by Mihailovic on Julian Carranza in the build-up.
I didn't think Montreal had much to complain about against Santos Laguna, when a goal was similarly disallowed. But this time, I'm not so sure.
Yes, Mihailovic steps across Carranza after the Argentine has poked the ball away. But Carranza is not actually fouled so much as he anticipates the contact and jumps into it. Was that really a clear and obvious error?
I'm singling out…
He's far from the finished product and has the occasional youthful lapse, but Ismael Kone continues to impress. The 19-year-old has not only the athleticism and technical ability to make penetrating runs with the ball through midfield but also the sense of when and how to do it. It is already one of Montreal's most dangerous weapons.
It's Cruz Azul at Estadio Azteca on Wednesday, and Montreal's next four MLS games are on the road. Oof.
Nancy's team is going to have to show some serious resolve now to avoid falling into the Champions League-related hole that so many teams have struggled to dig their way out of.
Vancouver Whitecaps 0-0 New York City FC
This was better from the Whitecaps – though it would have been difficult for them to be worse than they were in the first half on opening weekend against Columbus.
Against the Crew, Vancouver's midfield was totally overrun and so this time, Vanni Sartini took things back to basics. Leonard Owusu came into the team as a ball-winning presence and Russell Teibert dropped in alongside him, freeing Ryan Gauld to roam as a true No. 10. Beyond the formation change, the Whitecaps also simply showed less interest in possession, attempting just 267 passes and frequently playing long towards Lucas Cavallini.
This meant fewer of the ghastly turnovers that plagued them in Columbus and more opportunities for Gauld to pick up second balls and knock-downs off Cavallini, both of which were good things.
But ultimately, despite some promising situations, Vancouver mustered just one shot on target and 0.4 expected goals to NYCFC's 1.7. Sartini was right to simplify his approach to stabilize the team after a poor result, but the underlying problem is still there: this Whitecaps team has shown nowhere near enough quality in possession through 180 minutes to be any kind of serious force.
One big question…
Vancouver has room to bring in either a young designated player or a high earner on targeted allocation money. Who will it be?
“We have one main target for that... and it’s somebody who’s playing in Europe, where we have to wait or we have to see if his club will let him go now or (if) we have to wait until summer,” Schuster said this week, per the Province.
It appears the Whitecaps are leaning towards another attacker. Right now, central midfield feels like a bigger concern to me.
I'm singling out…
After an underwhelming start last weekend, Cavallini was better here. The directness in Vancouver's approach helped, drawing out his ability to win headers and bring others into play.
With Brian White getting 26 minutes under his belt, perhaps we see Gauld play off White and Cavallini in Houston next weekend.
Having opened up with a couple of out-of-conference opponents, Vancouver will now test itself against some Western rivals. Saturday's match at the Dynamo already feels like a big one between two winless teams.