NEW YORK — The media scrum in the corner of the visitors’ locker room at Yankee Stadium just kept on growing. Three rows deep. Then four. Now five.
Shrouded by the encirclement was Toronto FC’s petite Italian superstar, Sebastian Giovinco. On the night, he was also TFC’s hat-trick hero, the protagonist in a 5-0 thrashing of New York City FC that saw the visitors on to the Eastern Conference final on a dominant 7-0 aggregate.
Giovinco’s strike partner, Jozy Altidore, had managed to escape before a similar gaggle of reporters could descend on him, but he undoubtedly would have attracted one. Those two were the story. They were the subjects of press conference questions. They were the focus of gushing postgame stories, and rightly so.
Mere feet away from Giovinco, however, stood one of the craftsmen behind an equally important storyline, center back Drew Moor. An offseason acquisition from Colorado, the 11-year MLS veteran had just anchored a defense that silenced the league’s most potent attack over two legs.
“Our stars are shining right now,” Moor said. “But you look at some of the other players who maybe don’t have the [big] names, they’re turning in complete performances.”
As much as Toronto’s ascension to MLS Cup favorite has been due to the sparkling form of Giovinco and Altidore, it’s been powered by the stoutest defense in the East, one that conceded just 39 goals in 34 games one year after leaking 58, tied for a league high.
The transformation has been fueled by Moor and his fellow defenders, sure, but even more so by a coordinated, dominant press, the effectiveness of which has been accentuated by the team’s recent adoption of a 3-5-2 formation. The two legs against NYCFC illustrated just how formidable the press and the new alignment have made TFC, and just how difficult a dilemma Greg Vanney’s side now presents to opponents. Here's a closer look at TFC's success:
The high press
Toronto’s first leg performance was a masterclass in defending from the front. NYCFC, determined to play out from the back, was suffocated by Toronto’s press, which began with the two strikers and Jonathan Osorio and was supported by wing backs Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour and midfielders Armando Cooper and Michael Bradley.
Toronto’s line of confrontation was remarkably high, at times less than 20 yards from NYCFC’s goal line.
“We’ve won so many balls in the last 180 minutes so high up the field, in such good spots,” Moor said after the second leg.
Time after time, TFC forced the league’s top scorers into mistakes by charging down midfielders and defenders before they even received the ball:
“We did a good job of getting pressure to the ball right at the start of their attacks,” Vanney said. “It was very difficult for them to connect with each other in a clean way, because everybody was being harassed when they had the ball.”
Toronto’s counterpress was also ruthless. Whereas the standard press is primarily a man-oriented scheme—strikers on center backs, wing backs on fullbacks, midfielders on midfielders, center backs on attackers—upon losing possession, TFC swarms to the ball, erasing any time an opponent has to concoct a counterattack:
Nearly the entire first leg was played in New York’s half. When NYCFC tried to circumvent the press and play direct to its forwards, Toronto’s back three—plus a covering weak side wing back or a backline-shielding Bradley—had a numerical advantage, and thus had the freedom to take risks and intercept those long balls.
After all, that was one of the reasons for the switch to the 3-5-2 in October.
“It gave us a way to press higher up the field, knowing that we have enough security at the back as well,” Osorio says. “In case they choose to go long, we have three center backs back there to win the ball.”
The final piece of TFC’s sturdy defensive puzzle was NYCFC’s reluctance to commit numbers forward. Even when NYCFC did venture into Toronto’s half, it wasn’t willing to do so en masse. David Villa and Co. were often left to attack 4-on-8:
That’s because the presence of Altidore and Giovinco makes attacking as a team against TFC a dangerous proposition.
“All 11 players on the other side have to worry about them,” Moor said. “That allows us to get organized defensively.”
It allowed Toronto to keep a clean sheet at home, and two late goals begot a second leg that highlighted why NYCFC was so hesitant to come out of its shell in the first.
In theory, the solution to the TFC equation would be to play over the press, support the forwards and win second balls. That would allow opponents to escape the confines of their own defensive thirds.
Theory, however, doesn’t account for Altidore and Giovinco.
“You have to commit a lot of resources to keeping those two at bay,” Vanney said. When you aggressively reallocate those resources farther up the field, Toronto thrives. It can still defend with eight behind the ball; opponents, on the other hand, can’t defend Altidore, Giovinco and one or two others in transition.
With those resources reallocated, NYCFC was exposed on the counterattack, no matter where on the field the change of possession occurred:
Toronto is at its defensive best when it presses as a unit. But it can also sever that unit into eight and two, defending deeper and encouraging the front two to prepare for the counter even before possession changes hands. Giovinco provided an example of that in the 33rd minute clip above (1:04). As NYCFC builds an attack in midfield, Giovinco, with no defensive responsibility, drifts wide; once Cooper dispossesses Andrea Pirlo, he can immediately spring the counter.
NYCFC offered more going forward in the second leg. But the chances its attacking intent created for itself didn’t come close to compensating for the opportunities it gifted to Toronto on the other end. The result was a bona fide demolition, and a great representation of how tough Toronto is to play against at the moment.
The Impact aren’t likely play into Toronto’s teeth like NYCFC did. Morrow told SI.com Monday that he expects a more direct approach from TFC’s Canadian rivals in the first leg of their conference final series (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN). Presumably, they’ll bypass Toronto’s ravenous midfielders and hope the likes of Ignacio Piatti, Dominic Oduro and Matteo Mancosu can win individual battles with skill and speed up front.
It’s not outlandish to believe Montreal will trouble Moor and his defensive colleagues. The Impact stunned the top-seeded New York Red Bulls in their conference semifinal, and went 1-1-1 against Toronto in three regular season meetings. They have two of the league’s premier players in Piatti and center back Laurent Ciman–and a sellout crowd of over 60,000 at Olympic Stadium in their corner for the first leg.
Montreal’s hope lies with the ability of the front three to win those individual battles without support from a midfield that will be overmatched athletically. If they can’t, it could be a long day of isolation and frustration, stuck on the wrong side of midfield. And if that midfield does join the attack, the onus is on Ciman and the defense to deal with Altidore and Giovinco in space, something not many MLS teams have proven capable of in 2016.