In a short time, Toronto FC coach Preki has shown he’s not wary of making wholesale changes to get his team playing the way he wants.
Change the entire backline? Been there. Use multiple formations? Done that. This time, however, Preki may have outmaneuvered himself into a loss.
Watch: FULL MATCH HIGHLIGHTS
In yet another display of playing short of a full 90 minutes, Toronto FC fell 2-1 Saturday to a Real Salt Lake team that was there for the taking. And in a highly unusual move to start the game, Preki sat both leading scorer Dwayne De Rosario and Designate Player Julian de Guzman, who were both healthy.
It was obviously a move to be more defensive and weather the early storm, and then insert some fresh legs to attack in the second half. Considering TFC was coming off their third game in a week, the move to rest some starters seemed like the sensible thing to do.
But to rest both De Rosario and de Guzman? It backfired, and miserably.
“Again it’s a tale of two halves," De Rosario told Rogers Sportsnet after the match. "We can’t keep coming out and performing one half and not the other and vice-versa.”
A team with more balanced scoring could have weathered the loss of that kind of production. But De Rosario is Toronto’s offense with six of the team’s seven goals. Taking that offensive production and de Guzman’s midfield presence out at the same time was a mistake.
It’s also a recipe for trouble when a team that’s still trying to gel has to adjust to more wholesale lineup changes.
To be sure, Preki deserves credit for giving his players some rest amid a heavier schedule thanks to the Nutrilite Canadian Championship. However, Toronto has a week to rest before facing Chicago at home on May 8.
The move also gave him a look-see at what the likes of a Joseph Nane and an Amadou Sanyang can do when pressed into action.
But the tactical blunder cost the team a match it could have stolen.
Real Salt Lake, despite being defending MLS champions, haven't resembled champions in any way of late. They had just one win coming into the game.
So instead of pouncing on the opportunity to get a rare road win, Preki let RSL off the hook and handed them back their swagger.
Toronto should have been the aggressor from the start and not taken a passive approach by absorbing pressure, which is asking for trouble.
“They set the tempo from the start, we were back on our heels,” De Rosario said.
“We gave up two, I thought, poor chances in the second half. We were better in the second half and were able to get ourselves back in the game.”
Led by strong ball possession and inspired play from Canadian international Will Johnson, RSL threatened Toronto’s goal time and again. Johnson’s stinging free kicks, combined with some crisp passing, created numerous scoring chances. If it weren’t for some great saves by the reliable Stefan Frei, the deficit could have been a lot worse.
By the time De Rosario and de Guzman came into the game to start the second half, RSL had built a two-goal cushion that was too much for offensively challenged Toronto.
De Rosario set up TFC’s best scoring opportunity in the second half when he set up O’Brian White, but White’s header struck the crossbar. Later, it was none other than De Rosario that cut the deficit to one on a penalty kick goal following Kyle Beckerman's handball.
Credit De Rosario for scoring, but all it did was illustrate what could have been had he started the game.
A coach is supposed to put his team in the best possible position to win and Preki didn’t do that.
Winning on the road isn’t easy, so simplicity is key. There’s nothing wrong with lineup tinkering to find that magical combination, but taking the team’s entire offense out and making the players adjust to new teammates was too much.
For TFC, a road win is like manna from heaven—a blessing for a team that traditionally has played poorly away from BMO Field.
If Toronto again fail to make the playoffs this season by mere points, they could look back at this game as one that got away.