How will Toronto FC cope without several key players over the international break?

Mar 24, 2023 - 1:37 PM
Sean Pollock/Waking The Red

Toronto FC had its most complete team performance against Inter Miami this past Saturday since the debut of the Italians vs. Charlotte FC on July 23, 2022. TFC kept a clean sheet, looked defensively solid, showed improvements in ball progression and combination play, and generated more scoring chances (and scored more goals) than their opponents.

Building momentum from this complete team performance will be critical. But, with four starters (Jonathan Osorio, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Richie Laryea and Ayo Akinola) leaving TFC to represent Canada for the FIFA international break from March 20-28, 2023, continuity and momentum will be difficult to come by.

Fortunately, TFC only plays one game during this international break. So, how will the Reds adapt for their match against the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday, March 25th?

Adopting tactical flexibility to compensate for missing players

Bob Bradley has been criticized by many for being too tactically rigid. Scrutinizing a coach’s tactics and in-game decision making is common discourse for fans when a team isn’t doing well. There are moments when long-term patience with the process is needed for players to understand their specific roles within that coach’s system and for the coach to get their ideal players for that system. On the other hand, that patience has its limits and there needs to eventually be consistency in execution and results.

This season we’ve seen Bob begin to make some early season adjustments to his preferred playing style and formation. He deployed a defensive mid block for almost the entire game on the road against Atlanta FC. We’ve also seen him shift his formation from his preferred 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 to accommodate for Lorenzo Insigne’s injury and for Michael Bradley’s lack of pace and ability to play as a lone defensive midfielder.

These tactical tweaks have not always led to aesthetically appealing football. But, this process is starting to develop better defensive chemistry between players and is a foundation that the team can build on. TFC has shown improvements in preventing counter attacks by taking tactical fouls. If they can repeat their performance against Inter Miami, they should continue to limit opposition clear cut chances and concede less goals as a result.

There are still improvements to be made in managing tactics and substitutions in big moments within the game, but it at least seems that some of Bob’s early season adjustments are heading in a positive direction.

With four starters missing for Saturday’s upcoming match against San Jose, Bob’s tactical flexibility will be truly tested. Bob’s preference is to dominate possession and scoring chances, but without two starting midfielders and Insigne, it will be very difficult to execute this vision. A slight shift to a more defensive formation that focuses on counter attacks and puts the remaining best players on the field may be more optimal.

Shifting to a back three to maximize available TFC players

Beyond TFC’s starting 11, the team has very little depth in its squad. CB remains the best positional depth area for the club. Behind current CB starters Sigurd Rosted and Matt Hedges are two CBs with MLS experience in Shane O’Neill and Lukas MacNaughton. The recently acquired Cristian Gutierrez would have added depth at LB behind Raoul Petretta but unfortunately he also misses out due to a non-COVID illness.

TFC do not have a backup RB who can defend an entire flank on their own like Laryea often can. Shifting to a back three would help TFC maximize its players available to them this Saturday and compensate defensively for not having Laryea. Starting MacNaughton would help with ball progression and add another aerial presence on set pieces and on defense. Starting either MacNaughton or O’Neill would add further defensive solidity to the lineup.

Last season, TFC’s defense was often shaky and committing more players to the attack was a disaster waiting to happen. In a back three formation alongside two other CBs, MacNaughton could finally display more of the progressive passes, runs and carries that he was shown at Pacific FC in the Canadian Premier League.

Moving to a back three formation would also allow Petretta to play further up the pitch as a left wingback. Moving Petretta further up the field will optimize his strengths on the ball (passing, dribbling), while limiting the impact of his risk taking in defensive positioning.

Greater emphasis on counter attacking

I’m not an advocate for coaches changing their playing philosophy outside of extenuating circumstances. However, this will be the first of two international breaks that will test TFC’s depth and Bob’s adaptability. TFC will play a total of five MLS games across those two international breaks and will be missing multiple players each time. Adaptation in coaching philosophy for those games seems necessary.

TFC’s depth in midfield and attack was already sparse before losing players to injury and international duty. Both of TFC’s natural strikers, Akinola and Adama Diomande, will not be available for selection. Federico Bernardeschi, Osorio and Insigne are TFC’s best attacking players and the latter two will also not be available for selection.

On paper, generating scoring chances and playing a possession-oriented style will be difficult. One TFC bench player who can help in possession and in generating chances is Victor Vazquez. His technical ability, passing and decision making will help to partially compensate for the loss of Osorio. At 36 years old, it’s fair to question whether Vazquez can even play for a full 90 minutes.

Beyond Vazquez, there’s no other in-house solutions that will allow Bob to play his preferred style. However, the shift to the aforementioned back three formation and emphasizing counter attacking play could suit the players he has available. Playing Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty at right wingback and Petretta at left wingback would give Bob speed and technical ability on the flanks and compensate for the defensive shortcomings of both players.

TFC showed that they were very capable of scoring crisp, fluid counter attacking goals last season such as the one against CF Montreal in the Canadian Championship in the tweet above. Rehearsing counter attacking patterns of play in training this week so that all players can intuitively know where to pass and run to once possession is won will be crucial (if Bob chooses to emphasize a counter attacking style).

Potential starting 11 against San Jose

 Lineup builder courtesy of

Based on the players available to Bob, my choice would be to go with the above 3-4-3 formation. Both Vazquez and Bernardeschi are smart and technically gifted players. Having them as de facto central attacking midfielders should help to create overloads in central areas and also have capable runners opening space around them in Kerr, Petretta, Marshall-Rutty and Servania.

This formation should build on the defensive solidity that is slowly becoming a strength for the team. With MacNaughton, Marshall-Rutty and Vazquez coming in, it should help add an additional aerial threat and provide some progressive play and offense without being overly defensive.

Are there any other tactical adjustments you would make to compensate for the loss of four TFC starters? What would your preferred lineup against San Jose be?

No one has shouted yet.
Be the first!