Fire Cannot Match Giovinco’s Class
When forming a roster in MLS, there are basically two ways to do it. Go big, and lavish significant money on “name” players, or, become proficient at identifying talent that will excel in MLS, but not break the bank to do it. Teams like Portland and Real Salt Salt have succeeded using the latter approach. Teams like Toronto FC, the Fire’s opponent last Saturday, have gone big. Toronto is still seeking their first trophy, but the quality of their star player, Sebastian Giovinco, is unmistakeable. Although he didn’t score on Saturday, his influence on the match was in evidence for the full 90 minutes, leading TFC to a 1:0 victory. The Fire have now gone a full two years since last winning a road match.
Giovinco is the league’s reigning MVP and he showed why, setting up the goal to put TFC ahead for good. He was inches away from swerving a free kick past the Fire defense in the second half and generally caused loads of trouble for the Fire midfield. Giovinco was the best player on the field and a difference-maker in the outcome. The Fire expended a lot of energy trying to contain him and were also unable to offer much on the attacking end as a counterbalance. To put it into perspective, Giovinco earns about $7 million per season. That amount is two to three times bigger than the COMBINED salaries of the Fire’s starting attackers. You really do get what you pay for.
Coach Veljko Paunovic lined up his team in a 4-3-3, the same group that started versus San Jose. Paunovic had to formulate a group of midfielders who might blunt Giovinco’s attacking prowess, but the consequence was a midfield that had little hope of providing the playmaking ability to put the frontrunners in good scoring positions. This problem was not corrected until the start of the second half.
It took the home side just nine minutes to get a shot past goalkeeper Sean Johnson. Giovinco had loads of time and space as he controlled the ball 30 yards from goal on the left flank. He then played a brilliant through pass into an open area of the penalty box. Right back Rodrigo Ramos got sucked in ball-watching, and Justin Morrow swooped in after making the wide run down the left-wing touchline. Giovinco put the proper weight on his pass to allow Morrow to arrive at full speed. Morrow shot decisively and Johnson had no chance. It was all very simple soccer and the Fire had no answers.
The rest of the first half was one-way traffic towards the Fire goal. The Fire defense endured the pressure, but found a way to keep the result at 1:0 at the break.
A lot of that Toronto pressure was thanks to the Fire’s self-inflicted wounds. It’s not clear whether the early goal rattled the Fire so badly that they forgot how to make straightforward passes to teammates, but the team looked as undisciplined as a U-9 team. When their attempted passes were not going straight out of bounds, they were going directly to the feet of TFC players. The scene looked so bad that one had to wonder how the Fire would survive the second half.
At halftime, Paunovic seized the opportunity to insert new striker Michael de Leeuw into the lineup for Michael Stephens. The change placed de Leeuw up top in a 4-2-3-1, with Kennedy Igboananike, John Goosens and David Accam in midfield. Khaly Thiam and Joao Meira now assumed strict defensive duties. The changes had the twofold effect of improving the Fire attack and ensuring that the midfield had extra help on the defensive side.
In the end, the changes did not alter the outcome, but did change the Fire’s approach. What had been an all-out onslaught by TFC was now balanced by the Fire seeking to exploit space behind the TFC defense. With de Leeuw in the mix, the double-team tactic employed by Toronto on Accam had to shift focus. Aside from a 64th-minute flash of hope when Igboananike capped off a run from the left flank by clanging a shot off the crossbar, the Fire offense was a mixed bag of half-chances. The Fire attack could only create a meager two shots on goal for the game.
The debut for de Leeuw displayed his skill and field vision, but there is still work to do to get him working in harmony with the other attackers. This will be a matter of time and Paunovic must determine the best way that all of the moving parts fit together. Will de Leeuw contribute more as a formal striker, or will he cause more damage from marauding runs in the midfield?
The one thing that is clear is that Paunovic needs to have his four top attackers on the field at the start as frequently as possible in order for the Fire to have the best chance of getting some goals on the board. There are plenty of holding midfielders in his player pool to do the running and win balls and Paunovic can rotate these players liberally.