Toronto FC comes into Orlando tonight with the hottest offense in MLS. Star duo Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore have combined for a staggering 12 goals and five assists during Toronto’s unbeaten run that now spans six games. It’s a seemingly unstoppable force meeting a movable object. The fact that it’s a quick turnaround for a critical Eastern Conference clash in a tight race for the final playoff spots just makes slowing them down all the more critical.
Stopping them seems unlikely as the pair have never been a welcome sight for the Lions’ defenders. The Lions have yet to keep Toronto from scoring fewer than two goals in a match and were shelled 5-0 and 4-1 last summer. Giovinco has four goals and three assists in four games against Orlando and Altidore also has four goals in half the matches. These two alone made up 14% of all league goals Orlando allowed in 2015. City was able to win its first contest ever against Toronto earlier this year but needed a penalty decision absurdly deep into extra time. Even then, that was Toronto without a healthy Altidore.
It doesn’t help that the rout at the hands of Seattle is still fresh in Orlando fans’ minds. The Sounders’ forward tandem ran riot through Orlando’s defense and put an end to Orlando’s home unbeaten streak. Giovinco and Altidore don’t have the pace of Jordan Morris and Clint Dempsey, but the Atomic Ant could still beat Orlando’s center backs in a foot race.
Even if the Lions’ back line doesn’t leave an acre of space between them and Joe Bendik this time, Seba’s technical skill and ability to take on defenders means that he is always a threat to score. Naturally, this draws defenders to him in droves, which opens up space for his teammates to run into. His assists against the Lions — notably his setup for the late equalizer in June -- come from defenders not marking late runners in the box and committing too hard to the Italian. It’s a catch 22 for any defense.
The best method to combat this would be marking him with Orlando’s best one-on-one defender, Tommy Redding, and trying to maintain a disciplined shape around him. Once the rest of the team starts closing in on Giovinco, he can pick them apart with his passing. Orlando can still commit multiple defenders to stopping him, but there has to be a plan in place for the other attackers in the vicinity.
Servando Carrasco and Antonio Nocerino don’t have the same ability to break up attacks as the injured Cristian Higuita, but they can still jump passing lanes. The issue is — and has always been -- balls over the top. The following clip is a good example of Orlando’s successful attempts to limit Giovinco using these tactics, even though they gave up a goal.
When the defenders realize that Seba is left in space, both Carrasco and David Mateos close the gap. Carrasco shuts down the direct route between the Italian and Jonathan Osorio. Mateos then recognizes where Osorio is going with the ball and turns to give himself a head start. Giovinco still beats him, but he’s ushered to the end line where his options are limited. He now has to whip a ball in at a tight angle to have any chance at threatening Bendik and does so, and Joe manages to divert it away from goal. Redding does his job and takes the other forward. Unfortunately, there’s still a runner waiting on the other side of the box. If Kevin Alston marks Justin Morrow, Orlando has neutered Toronto’s attack and likely walks away 2-1 winners instead of 3-2.
Giovinco’s strike partner, Altidore, is almost as much of a handful but in theory is easier to handle on his own. Altidore’s imposing frame and strength complement Giovinco, but only if he can hold the ball. His hold-up play gives the other attackers time to get into dangerous positions. This is where new acquisition José Aja could shine.
Orlando has lacked a physical central defender since the departure of Aurélien Collin, but the Uruguayan international can fill that void. He made a mark in his first start on Saturday against Colorado on the way to recording a clean sheet, but it will be interesting to see if he can do the same against better forwards. Seb Hines was held out of the match with the Rapids due to a problem with his knee but should be available tonight. Even so, if Aja is fit enough after playing the majority of Saturday’s fixture, his physicality has the potential to vault him ahead of Hines in this situation. It should be noted that Jozy beat Hines one-on-one for both goals in Orlando’s 2-0 loss last season.
It will be tough to deny Altidore service with the likes of Giovinco and Michael Bradley providing it, but harassing him once he is on the ball will be key to keeping him and the rest of the Reds at bay. Aja’s toughness can force the USMNT forward to give up the ball once he has it instead of shielding it. Altidore is also a threat on set pieces, but he has yet to overpower the Lions with his aerial ability. His goal against Orlando on a free kick last season was due to poor marking -- he and Marky Delgado were both left alone at the post — which is an overarching issue that can’t be solved easily. He may use his size to collect the ball, but the biggest issue Orlando faces with Altidore is how easily he blew by the defense last year, burning the Lions for four goals in just 108 minutes. Orlando’s defenders will need to respect his speed on runs or else they’ll find him through on goal.
But live play isn’t the only area where the Reds can hurt teams.
Of Giovinco’s four goals against Orlando, two came from free kicks on the edge of the area. Both were unstoppable shots that rebounded off the woodwork and in, giving Tally Hall no chance. A major issue for Orlando’s defensive midfield and defenders has been giving away cheap fouls in dangerous areas. Most teams in MLS don’t have the weapons to punish Orlando, but Giovinco is deadly in dead ball situations. The best way to prevent him from hurting you is not giving him an opportunity.
Using Nocerino and Carrasco as the defensive midfielders should give the team more ball security in dangerous positions and they aren’t as prone to fouls as Higuita is. If the players can maintain their discipline and defensive shape, they’ll still need good team defense from the wingers and fullbacks. Of course, if Orlando can manage to neutralize Toronto’s forwards, it still has to contend with Michael Bradley.
But for the Lions, it isn’t so much about keeping a clean sheet tonight as it is containing the damage to a reasonable amount to keep their offense within striking distance. If the previous fixtures are any indication, there will be goals.