Goals must be the goal

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - SPORTS - SCOTT STIN­SON

TORONTO — There was a time in this MLS sea­son that Toronto FC was a ter­ri­fy­ing goal-scor­ing ma­chine.

Dur­ing a six-match win­ning streak in which they all but clinched the reg­u­lar-sea­son ti­tle, TFC scored 21 times, an average of more than three per game.

They have scored three goals, total, in their four play­off games.

So, what hap­pened? Where did the of­fen­sive flash go? Over the ex­traor­di­nar­ily long MLS play­off sched­ule — Satur­day’s MLS Cup fi­nal will be TFC’s fifth game in 47 days — did they mis­place their swag­ger some­where? And more to the point, can they get it back?

Con­sid­er­ing the fi­nal is a re­match with a Seat­tle Sounders team that held TFC with­out a goal over 120 min­utes in the last MLS Cup, it is a bit of an ur­gent ques­tion.

Not that TFC sounds ter­ri­bly wor­ried about it.

“We’ve just come up against teams that are try­ing to sti­fle the way we play rather than im­pose their style of play,” said de­fender Justin Mor­row on Wed­nes­day, af­ter a cold and windy train­ing ses­sion at the team’s Downsview prac­tice fa­cil­ity.

“Play­offs are cagey ,” said de­fender Drew Moor. “Teams didn’t want to open up against us.”

The coach, Greg Van­ney, said much the same thing, and walked a large me­dia throng through the way the play­offs have un­folded. When TFC jumped out to an early lead in their first post-sea­son game in New York, with an eighth­minute goal from Vic­tor Vasquez, and came away from that match with a 2-1 lead, it sent them home for the sec­ond leg need­ing to do noth­ing other than avoid con­ced­ing twice.

“Then maybe you are less am­bi­tious to try to go and get the third goal, the fourth goal, guys tend to take up more con­ser­va­tive po­si­tions and try to pro­tect on the de­fen­sive side a bit more,” Van­ney said.

“In order to score goals some­times you have to open your­self up a bit and if you are al­ready ahead, you don’t have to open your­self up.”

In the next round, against a hot Colum­bus team, and with strik­ers Se­bas­tian Giovinco and Jozy Alti­dore sus­pended, TFC opened on the road look­ing for a clean sheet first, and maybe a goal if the chance pre­sented it­self. The re­sult­ing goal­less draw was a com­fort­able re­sult.

The sec­ond leg at BMO Field, Van­ney said, could eas­ily have un­folded dif­fer­ently. Vasquez was stoned on a penalty kick at­tempt early. Things got tight.

“If we score that PK early on, maybe the game opens up a lit­tle bit more, maybe some­thing comes out of it, I don’t know,” Van­ney said. As it was, the late goal pro­vided by a hob­bled Alti­dore, pre­sum­ably right be­fore his sprained an­kle swelled up like a bal­loon, was enough for a 1-0 ag­gre­gate win. It wasn’t the 4-0 shellings that TFC was rou­tinely of­fer­ing three months ago, but it was enough to ad­vance. Which is the point, af­ter all.

“The pri­or­i­ties shift to what­ever helps you win,” Van­ney said. And Toronto’s op­po­si­tion, more than aware of the team’s league-lead­ing 74 goals in the reg­u­lar sea­son, took cau­tious ap­proaches, al­though dif­fer­ent ap­proaches. As Mor­row put it, Colum­bus was a chess match, “and New York was a brawl.”

But all that said, Toronto learned last year that they do not want to leave them­selves to the coin flip of a penalty shootout, and so on Satur­day af­ter­noon goals should be the, um, goal.

“I sure hope so,” said Moor on the prospect of this MLS Cup fi­nal con­tain­ing some ac­tual scor­ing. “I know y’all hope so.”

But, then: “Cup fi­nals are usu­ally cagey,” Moor said, “no one wants to make the big mis­take.”

“But if it does open up, I think that tilts the bar our way.”

And that is prob­a­bly the chal­lenge. Toronto scored 22 more goals that Seat­tle in the reg­u­lar sea­son and con­ceded two fewer. Given TFC’s many of­fen­sive weapons, with the sub­lime play of Vasquez added to the Giovinco Alti­dore tan­dem, why wouldn’t Seat­tle seek to hud­dle be­hind the ball, do ev­ery­thing to keep the ball out of their net, and hope for a break in the even­tual shootout? It has worked for them be­fore. That team can park the hell out of the prover­bial bus.

In which case, it will be up to TFC to keep it from com­ing to that. The de­fend­ers, and the coach, talked on Wed­nes­day of the pride that this team takes in its de­fen­sive re­spon­si­bil­ity. “It’s a col­lec­tive men­tal­ity to pro­tect and de­fend our goal,” Van­ney said, not­ing that Toronto had blanked Colum­bus in their two semi-fi­nal games. That’s not noth­ing. His squad could have be­come frus­trated with the lack of scor­ing and be­come sloppy in pur­suit of goals. That way lies dan­ger and re­gret.

Moor said that TFC’s foun­da­tion was their or­ga­ni­za­tion at the back. Mor­row said their de­fen­sive suc­cess was a men­tal­ity thing, not just shape and or­ga­ni­za­tion. He noted that for all of TFC’s star power, play­ers are will­ing to make the re­spon­si­ble play first. “It’s self­less plays,” Mor­row said.

And yet at some point, if they want to avoid the cruel fate of spot kicks, one of those play­ers may have to de­cide to be self­ish.

NEIL DAVID­SON/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Toronto FC play­ers and coach­ing staff as­sem­ble dur­ing prac­tice in heavy fog on Satur­day in Toronto. TFC plays the Seat­tle Sounders for the MLS cham­pi­onship on Satu­day.

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