In a six-point match against Eastern Conference foes Toronto FC, the Lions were looking to get back to winning ways as focus has shifted from the U.S. Open Cup back to making the playoffs.
Coming into the match, the Lions were in ninth in the standings, three points behind Toronto in eighth and Montreal in seventh. Every point is critical now as we are down to the final 10 matches for the Lions in the 2019 campaign, so what did we learn from the 1-1 scoreline against TFC?
We all have seen how versatile this squad can be in terms of choices for the starters. One thing that may have been overlooked while we critically examine matches is how well the club shifts formation. The Lions have typically played a 4-3-3 this season, but for this match, Coach James O’Connor brought them out in a 4-2-3-1, a formation that some say fits the starting XI better. With Sebas Mendez not available due to yellow card accumulation, Cristian Higuita still not recovered from his injury, and another short break between matches, it certainly appears to be a challenge to keep the boys rotated, fresh, and ready for the challenges that lie ahead. The second half even the saw the boys look to be playing a 4-1-4-1 that would shift to a five man back line as TFC looked to score.
Tale of Two Halves
As a bit of a surprise, the Lions held the possession edge after the first half against a Toronto team that is much more accustomed to leading possession. The Lions were very much the aggressors in the first half, aggravating the Reds in possession and pressing across the pitch. The second half was the exact opposite. It almost seemed as though the Lions switched to a more bunkering type of system, hoping to utilize a counter attack to score, however, in reality Toronto was just really good at maintaining possession in the second half and Orlando struggled to get on the ball. It saw the tide of the match sway towards the hosts. The lack of pressure in the second half led to Toronto getting back into the match and applying more pressure on the Lions.
Substitutes Step Up Again
I need to go back into my notebooks, and confer with a couple of the other contributors to find out just how many times this season the substitutes have impacted a match like they did last night. The Lions have made a habit of sending on a substitute and seeing that fresh player change the game within minutes of taking their place on the pitch. Benji Michel, Tesho Akindele, and Ruan did exactly what you want your substitutes to do — impact the game and turn the tide back into your favor — or at least level the playing field again. Benji came on and scored within 90 seconds. Tesho helped to keep the TFC back line honest and created a new challenge to defend for the last 12 minutes. Ruan was Ruan, and his speed and hustle created problems, although he and Tesho may have come on just a bit too late.
Final Third Sharpness Still Missing
The Lions are still not quite clinical enough in the final third, minus the counter that led to the goal. The Lions keep creating chances in front of the goal, but the ability to finish or pick out the proper pass at the end is still missing. Ending a match like that with only eight shots helps to tell the same story, with Nani and Robinho leading the Lions with two shots each. The Lions only forced Quentin Westberg into two dangerous positions and the TFC keeper stepped up with a save and could only watch as Benji slotted a beautiful ball past him in the run of play. The Lions’ offense continues to improve, but this is an area that still needs help.
Defense is Improved
The center back pair of Robin Jansson and Lamine Sané, along with Brian Rowe in net, has been an immense positive for the Lions this season. With last season’s historic goals-against number of 74, any improvement would be worth while, but I do not think anyone could have predicted that the club would only have allowed 34 goals at this point in the season. It isn’t just these three who should be praised, it is absolutely a team effort, including the forwards dropping when needed and helping to clear the box. The club’s collective defense against set pieces, although still needing some work, has drastically improved and looks better every week.
It looked like the boys were going to make that first big statement towards the playoffs in Toronto, but it was not to be. The club is nowhere near out of the playoff race yet, but if the Lions can’t put matches away, it is going to make the task exponentially more difficult every week.
Fifth through 11th in the East is separated by only 10 points, fifth through ninth is only separated by six points, and everyone in that group is level on matches played. The Lions looked solid for 45 minutes, and then a bit lost for 20. It will be another short week for the club as points get more and more valuable.