Toronto exploits New York City FC's tactics in 5-0 rout at Yankee Stadium
NEW YORK -- Three quick thoughts from Toronto FC's 5-0 win over New York City FC at Yankee Stadium on Sunday and a 7-0 aggregate win in their Eastern Conference semifinal.
1. So much for NYCFC's true identity
If there was a lesson to take from the first leg for New York City FC manager Patrick Vieira, it might have been not to second-guess what the team had done well all year: Play out from the back, commit to attack and believe in your ability to outscore your opponents. If anything, a 2-0 deficit from the first leg ended up being a kind of perverse gift for the coach: There was nothing for it but to go back to Plan A.
So on Sunday evening, New York went back to playing out of the back. And Toronto duly pressed the hosts all over the tight Yankee Stadium field, knowing that under the circumstances, NYCFC's habit of prevailing in high-scoring regular-season games would likely play into the Canadians' hands.
And that's the thing with Plan A for NYCFC: It's leaky. New York City cannot keep a clean sheet, and it was always likely it'd give up a goal in pursuit of chasing the deficit. But it had barely troubled the Toronto half, let alone its goal, when Sebastian Giovinco spun off his marker in the box to open the scoring in the sixth minute. And by the time Jozy Altidore battered in Toronto's third, with barely half an hour gone, New York's constantly intercepted attempts to play out of the back, and the highly damaging consequences, were making Vieira's tactics in Toronto look like genius.
NYCFC kept at it, but by the time halftime came was resembling the dismembered knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," insisting mortal wounds were just a scratch. Vieira has admirable attacking principles, but against the best teams, or just within the focus of the playoffs, his side's core identity is a crisis waiting to happen.
2. Toronto yet to face adversity in these playoffs
Given all the likely permutations coming into the game, NYCFC's best-case version of possible events ran that Toronto had swept past it at the climax of an emotional night in the first leg, and was probably favored to score at least one on Sunday night, but still nobody knew how Toronto would deal with seeing the finishing line in sight in a two-legged road game.
Well, scoring three in the first half hour is one way to make late-game nerves a moot point. Before the match, Vieira had hoped to put pressure on Toronto by making the game "crazy from the start." But as it turned out, the pregame spectacle, with its bagpipes, pyrotechnics, darkened stadium, video montages and parading firemen, contained more intensity and flair than his overwhelmed team could summon once the whistle blew. Toronto ignored the hype, stepped up from the start, swarmed through midfield and repeatedly punished NYCFC's slackness.
At halftime Vieira had revised his ambitions to a more sober hope that his team could "try to get out with a little bit of dignity" and perhaps to "try and win the second half." He duly took off RJ Allen for Khiry Shelton, to go three at the back, then watched as Shelton set up the Toronto break for the fourth goal with a pinpoint pass into the path of a grateful Giovinco.
By that time, never mind qualifying for the Eastern Conference final, NYCFC was left hoping to get out of the game without emulating the lopsided 7-0 loss to the Red Bulls earlier in the season. And if we wanted to find out how Toronto might cope with the inevitable adversity that comes in any successful playoff campaign, we were going to be waiting for another day.
3. Toronto's DPs showed up; New York's went missing
Neither Frank Lampard nor Andrea Pirlo had started in Toronto, while David Villa had been controversially subbed off just before the first of Toronto's two late goals. On Sunday night all three were back in the lineup, and if ever there was a time for their sometimes-awkward combination to finally come together, it was this game.
The problem, as it always has been, is that in order to accommodate the potential threat of Pirlo and Lampard in particular, NYCFC risks stranding Andoni Iraola on an island as the defensive pivot of the trio. When New York is handily beaten, this tends to be the area it's overrun in, and a harrying Michael Bradley duly did his part to ensure that he gave Giovinco and Altidore plenty of ammunition to get behind the blue defensive lines.
Once they were there, the remainder of Toronto's DP contingent duly wreaked havoc, while NYCFC's marquee names were once again bystanders. Villa was isolated again, Pirlo anonymous and off the pace and by the time Lampard hit a speculative shot from distance in the 38th minute the game was long gone. By way of contrast, Giovinco completing his hat trick was almost a blase moment, so commonplace has his consistent excellence been.
Not that the supporting cast countered the impression set by the respective DPs; the likes of Drew Moor and the other MLS veterans Toronto has padded the roster with this year were rocks, while at the other end New York's second-tier players, such as Frederic Brillant and Maxime Chanot, were bullied by Giovinco and Altidore.
And that's the big difference between these two rosters right now. Toronto has the right key players and the right supporting parts around them. Vieira's late-season defensive and goalkeeping reshuffles only served as a distraction from a more fundamental truth: New York City has been trying to patch a flawed approach to Designated Player recruitment from the start.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.