by Jerrad Peters
There is something a bit odd about kicking off a new season with a high-stakes match in a continental competition. Something more low key—like an opener against an MLS conference rival in your home stadium—would be much more typical, perhaps even preferable, but given the North American football calendar’s winter off-season it doesn’t always work out that way, at least for the teams who managed to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League knockout stage the previous fall.
Toronto FC and Los Angeles Galaxy were two of those teams and on Wednesday began their campaigns with the first leg of a quarterfinal tie at a sold-out Rogers Centre in downtown Toronto—the home stadium of Major League Baseball’s Blue Jays. The choice of venue, and the nearly 48,000 fans who packed it, only added to the unusual set of circumstances; in many ways the 90 minutes were more an event than a match.
And yet there was, indeed, a match. And a very good one.
Beyond the feel-good atmosphere of the home support, and the sense that the occasion represented something of a coming-out party for club football in Canada, there was a highly competitive match played at a surprisingly good level. Not exactly something you’d expect from the first match of a new campaign.
After all, it was just 12 months ago that Toronto were walloped by the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps in their MLS season opener. Progress, it would seem, is finally a tangible thing for Canada’s first MLS club. That said, Los Angeles left their opponents in the dust after taking a while to settle, and the manner in which they overturned a two-goal deficit was fitting of an experienced side with big-name players and championship credentials.
No doubt Aron Winter and Bruce Arena will have each learned a thing or two about their sides at the final whistle of the 2-2 draw, and the lessons—both good and bad—will have been all the more stark given the enormity of the match.
Here are just a few items the Toronto and Los Angeles managers will have made a note of on Wednesday. And while their campaigns are only a game old, how they handle these issues will have a lot to do with their fortunes over the balance of the season.
What we learned about Toronto FC’s defense
It was the worst unit in 2011 and only began to show gradual improvement after the July debut of Torsten Frings. The former Germany international is a consistent, reliable presence in the centre of defense, but the very fact he’s playing there tells you just how weak the group still is.
Ideally, Winter would have the 35-year-old in the middle of the park, organizing both attacking movements and defensive plays. His presence is required in the backline, however, because Ty Harden is a liability and wing-back Richard Eckersley is defensively suspect.
Miguel Aceval may settle in the position, but the Chilean was far from comfortable in his debut at Rogers Centre. Adrian Cann’s return from injury will be a major boost to Toronto.
What we learned about LA Galaxy’s full-backs
A lot of Toronto FC’s meaningful attacking play came from out wide, where Joao Plata and Eckersley absolutely dominated Sean Franklin and Todd Dunivant. Franklin, the right-back, was especially out of his depth against Plata—the speedy Ecuadorian—and it was largely thanks to Landon Donovan’s tracking back and tucking in that allowed him to get a grip on the matchup in the second half.
Dunivant was consistently out-run by Eckersley, although the reverse was also true when possession was switched. Nevertheless, this is an area that will require some attention from Arena if Galaxy are to repeat as Major League Soccer’s best defensive outfit in 2012.
What we learned about Toronto FC’s newcomers
Upon scoring his first goal for his new club—a well-placed header that eluded goalkeeper Josh Saunders to the far post—Luis Silva fell to his knees in tears, crossed himself and did a little dance with Plata before returning to the centre circle. Toronto fans are already falling for the 23-year-old midfielder, selected with the club’s first round pick in the 2012 draft, and their affection will only grow the more they see of him. He has a good first touch and is already demonstrating some chemistry with Plata from his position on the left of midfield.
The jury is still out on Aceval, however. Brought in to add some experience to what has historically been a young, mistake-prone Toronto defense, the 29-year-old Chilean struggled mightily against Los Angeles, particularly on set pieces. It would be unfair to judge him too harshly after just one appearance, but stability at the back is something Toronto desperately require to progress and Aceval is a big part of Winter’s plans in that regard.
What we learned about LA Galaxy’s star power
They were motivated and they each played the entire 90 minutes on Wednesday. Robbie Keane, David Beckham and Landon Donovan are not only the most expensive stars in LA’s galaxy, they are also the most important and need to shine the brightest for the club to enjoy success. They did exactly that at Rogers Centre.
Beckham, it must be said, started slowly, misplacing several passes before finally settling late in the first half. He did well to regroup after being the target of a thrown beer can while getting ready to take a corner in the second half, and after kicking the object out of his way delivered the set-piece that led to Donovan’s equalizer. He also made a vital defensive intervention midway through the second period that prevented Toronto from scoring an important third goal.
Donovan was the best of the three, however, and after drifting through much of the first half while Toronto dominated finally asserted himself on the match after tucking into more of a midfield role and helping Beckham and Juninho turn the game’s momentum on its head.
As a trio, the three were committed and very much into the occasion, and that sort of dedication from their biggest stars will only help Los Angeles maintain the lofty standards they set for themselves by winning the title last season.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer
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