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Toronto Draws in Mexico (or: Slow News Day in Western Soccer!)

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This is not a professional striker. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
This is not a professional striker. (Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)
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My initial plan was to head to Langley to take in Davide Chiumiento and the Whitecaps reserves. But working my real job over the previous night eliminated my enthusiasm to bus two hours for a reserve game featuring an out-of-shape Swiss midfielder who hopefully wouldn't break his nose, and I slept instead. I got my soccer fix out of my system in a far more conventional manner: I turned on Toronto's visit to Mexico's Cruz Azul in the CONCACAF Champions League.

Unlike many fellow Whitecaps supporters, I cheer for Toronto FC in the Champions League and I don't even feel bad about it. It's like supply-side economics applied to soccer: a rising tide lifts all boats. If Toronto pounds some Mexicans and manages not to get walloped by some Panamanians or some Puerto Ricans and we get articles in the national press about Canada being good at soccer for once, then that's good for Canada and it's good for Vancouver. On an emotional level I do enjoy it when Toronto loses (ha, take that, you Ontarian gits!), but intellectually I know what's best and my brain usually manages to boss around my heart.

But both brain and heart were in tough last night. My brain was aggrieved at the lineup Nick Dasovic put out. For their long-shot goal of making the MLS playoffs Toronto needs to gain five points on either Seattle or San Jose (the Earthquakes have two games in hand) in their final four matches without losing ground to Kansas City (one point back, two games in hand) despite having by far the worst goal differential of any team even theoretically in contention. Toronto's playoff dreams are boned barring a miracle, yet Dasovic, among other odd moves, decided to play Fuad Ibrahim and O'Brian White as his strikers. In short, he had decided from the start that he wasn't even going to try and get a goal from his forwards. With Dwayne De Rosario starting on the bench, Toronto had the offensive vigour of a piece of stale cheese. This affected their chances of winning pretty negatively.

Yet my heart was upset because it wouldn't even get to enjoy watching Toronto crumble. They played a solid, disciplined defensive game, baited Cruz Azul into losing their composure, had a few lucky breaks, and got out with a 0-0 draw that might have been an 0-1 victory if had they'd just had some goddamned attacking options. On no level was it not frustrating.

And since there's no Whitecaps news, my analysis (banalysis?) after the jump.

I've made my opinion on good, counter-attacking soccer clear in the past. Toronto FC wasn't playing the counter up to a Swiss level of perfection but, aside from a few flaws, they were pretty close. For the most part they stuck to the golden rules: keep the traffic to the outside, allow your enemies to move the ball when it doesn't matter but close them down hard if they have the opportunity to cross or otherwise cause trouble, and tackle as firmly as the referee will let you. This prevents your more talented opposition from getting genuine scoring opportunities and forces them to run around, trying to break through your line while the defenders can usually hang back a bit and conserve their energy. It also frustrates the attackers to no end, which paid dividends when Fausto Pinto took a red card for trying to bury Julian de Guzman like a CFL safety catching a punt returner, or when Alejandro Vela, a midfielder with seven goals for Cruz Azul in two years, suddenly lost his ability to finish at a fifteen year old's level because he was so antsy when the ball finally landed at his feet.

Toronto's tactics were not perfect, however, and they were mostly let down by personnel. There was no transition in central midfield; Julian de Guzman's only real contribution to the game was getting fouled spectacularly by Pinto (is there a replay of that somewhere? It was something else; Jules had uncorked a rather poor pass about a second previous but Pinto came thundering at the 5'6" de Guzman like an avenging angel and laid down a ferocious shoulder charge just as the camera panned away from the action that sent Jules flying out of frame). Other than that, he mostly misplayed passes for ninety minutes. He was his old self defensively and Cruz Azul never had an easy time getting around him, but his constant giveaways made him a net negative. Dwayne De Rosario, when he came in as a substitute, spent most of the game seeming to think "screw you guys, I'll do this by myself" which was a pity because De Rosario isn't good enough to do it by himself against a strong Mexican team. He falls into the same trap for Canada far too often, and that's why he's been less effective for his country in the last three years than Terry Dunfield.

Next off, there was their attack. O'Brian White has scored four times for Toronto in his career but might be the least respected striker on the team (and that's saying something). He was a Hermann Trophy winner in his college days with the University of Connecticut but tore his anterior cruciate ligament in December of 2008 towards the end of his college career. All the same, Toronto took White fourth overall in the MLS SuperDraft in January of 2009, were patient with him as he recovered from his injury, and have since injected him semi-regularly into their MLS lineup. He's appeared in twenty-eight matches this year despite the facts that, whether because of his injury or otherwise, he can barely run, cannot finish accurately, is a miserable ball-handler, and has proven himself a completely ineffective MLS striker despite theoretically being near his prime. White is a Canadian-born former Jamaican youth international eligible for both Canada and Jamaica: now he turns twenty-five in December and neither country seems to want him. Fuad Ibrahim is possibly even less effective than White (who at least brings size, strength, and the ability to head the ball as long as he doesn't have to move too far for it), but has the excellent excuse of being only nineteen years old. He might be somebody someday but he clearly isn't anybody now: not the sort of guy you can picture getting a goal against Mexican title contenders on the road at altitude when playing with a concrete highway divider as his fellow striker and a crew of midfielders who can't string passes together.

I don't want to say Toronto could have used Ali Gerba, but... well, they really, really could have. Any team that throws Ali Gerba to the curb but employs O'Brian White, who multiplies all of Gerba's flaws but possesses almost none of his strengths, is a team that deserves to miss the playoffs. Chad Barrett and Mista could have been the difference against a Cruz Azul team that was getting too impatient, too greedy, and was open for a hearty pummeling on the counterattack. Even Ibrahim nearly broke one in stoppage time before he misplayed the ball coming down the wing and conceded a goal kick. Actual professional strikers probably would have poached one for Toronto and then there'd be real celebrating going on. The Cruz Azul defenders, particularly the central defenders, were crossing the centre of the park and getting way too involved in the offense. Had Barrett been available, the Toronto wingbacks could have just launched their clearing passes to the quick Barrett and they would have sprung him sooner or later. Or they could have gone through the middle and burned them with speed and a quick transition.

A draw is a pretty good result for Toronto, though. It leaves them third in Group A and almost in control of their own destiny. If they beat Panama's Árabe Unido (which they bloody well should) and Real Salt Lake at home (they ought to be able to manage it, but no guarantees), they'd only need one upset from either Salt Lake over Cruz Azul in Utah or Árabe Unido over Salt Lake in Panama to get through to the knockout stages. It's not an easy road, but it's better than the one to make the MLS playoffs. Load up for the CONCACAF Champions League, Nick Dasovic. Give your fans a miracle to cheer for.