Kicking off the second round of the MLS is Back Tournament was Toronto FC against NYCFC. Having been knocked out of the previous MLS Cup Playoffs, NYCFC looked determined to send a message under new head coach Ronny Deila, the former Celtic manager from 2014-2016. Indeed it was Deila’s men who struck first, taking an early lead, in this match. The goal came from an early set-piece, putting Toronto on their heels and New York City in the driver’s seat. 

In this particular match-up, New York city’s commitment to getting behind the ball and defending in large numbers was crucial. That, combined with their ability to finish their early chances, is what provided them with the edge. Additionally, it was Toronto’s momentary defensive lapses, in particular in dead-ball situations, that ultimately decided their fate. This tactical analysis will explain how the defensive structure and commitment of NYCFC coupled with their quality in front of goal paid dividends for them in this MLS is Back Tournament round of 16 match-up.


MLS is Back Tournament: Toronto FC vs NYCFC - tactical analysis

In this particular match, Toronto lined-up in their typical 4-4-2 formation, however, upon further analysis, they only kept that shape while defending and pressing NYCFC higher up the field. When they were able to find possession typically Alejandro Pozuelo who played two years in the EPL with Swansea City would drop in underneath Patrick Mullins while the wingers stepped higher creating a 4-3-3 going forward. 

Similar to Toronto, NYCFC also utilised a 4-4-2 defensively for the majority of the match. However, Deila’s tactics shifted into a narrow 4-2-3-1 in possession utilising two holding midfielders and allowing their wingers to come inside. As a result, both of the NYCFC outside-backs were able to find space out wide going forward, however, right-back Anton Tinnerholm was the more effective of the two. 

NYCFC Attacking Set Pieces

In this particular match, NYCFC did not create a plethora of attacking chances. However, they were extremely efficient and accurate once they were in front of the goal. They also proved to be dangerous from set-pieces and recognized opportunities to strike in dead ball situations. One of the best examples of this came inside the first ten minutes of the match and produced their first goal. 

MLS is Back Tournament: Toronto FC vs NYCFC - tactical analysis

In this sequence, the ball has dropped to Tinnerholm as a result of the NYCFC set-piece and a poor clearance from Toronto. He immediately notices Jesús Medina who has peeled off to the left side of the field and is unmarked. 

MLS is Back Tournament: Toronto FC vs NYCFC - tactical analysis

Tinnerholm plays a brilliant and well-weighted pass into Medina. Who receives the ball in behind three Toronto defenders and 1v1 with goalkeeper Quentin Westberg. From here, Medina calmly places a shot to Westberg’s left which finds the back of the net and puts New York City up 1-0 five minutes into the match. 

In this sequence, it was Toronto’s inability to clear the ball from danger as well as a slow transition to defend afterwards that opened them up. Combined with the quality of both the pass from Tinnerholm and the quality finish of Medina, it put NYCFC in the driver’s seat and in control early. Fortunately for NYCFC, this would be a theme in this match.

The second goal for New York came from another dead ball situation. This time, Toronto committed a foul in the New York half and transitioned slowly into their own half looking to organise for the upcoming set-piece. However, they were unaware of a quick long ball played from NYCFC which would ultimately create an even bigger hole for them to try and come back from. 

MLS is Back Tournament: Toronto FC vs NYCFC - tactical analysis

Here we can see with several Toronto players still recovering and getting back to defend. Meanwhile, NYCFC forward Valentín Castellanos is already challenging for the ball that’s been played quickly after the foul. Here, Castellanos is able to set the ball brilliantly for Medina who is running underneath him. 

MLS is Back Tournament: Toronto FC vs NYCFC - tactical analysis

Next Castellanos recognizes the space created in behind the Toronto defenders. As a result, he looks to spin out and Medina plays a great first time ball over the top to Castellanos who is running towards the Toronto goal. 

MLS is Back Tournament: Toronto FC vs NYCFC - tactical analysis

Once receiving the ball Castellanos drives at Toronto defender Omar Gonzalez on the dribble. After a few faints left, he easily dribbles inside to his right and is able to slot his shot far post, leaving goalkeeper Westberg rooted to the ground and having to pick a  second ball out of his net in this match. 

Again in this sequence, the momentary lapse in concentration of Toronto cost them. Their slow transition and inability to deal with the set-piece were costly. Ultimately, Castellanos did well, but Gonzalez made it to easy for him to cut inside and gave him to much room to get the shot off. Still, only 55 minutes in and down 2-0, it wasn’t completely over for Toronto. 

Toronto’s use of space

While the story for NYCFC in this match was capitalising on their few opportunities, the opposite was true for Toronto. Toronto ended the match with 37 attacks creating eight total shots and one goal compared to NYCFC’s 26 total attacks creating three shots and three goals. Still, even with less total goals, they were able to build possession into quality attacking chances in NYCFC’s half. They were able to do so through two different tactics deployed by coach Vanney. 

The first was the shape utilised when attacking through the wide channels. 

MLS is Back Tournament: Toronto FC vs NYCFC - tactical analysis

In these situations, Vanney utilised his outside backs to provide the width. In their 4-3-3, the Toronto wingers looked to run inside in order to anchor the NYCFC outside-backs narrower. This created the space for the Toronto outside-backs to push higher up the field and help build possession into the NYCFC half. In this situation, it is difficult for the NYCFC outside backs to step higher because it creates a 3v3 situation for the Toronto attackers against the remaining NYCFC centre-backs and outside-back. This was a shape seen regularly throughout this match however, it was not the only tactic for Vanney’s men. 

The second shape utilised by Toronto allowed them to play through the middle of the field and also created some quality chances. 

MLS is Back Tournament: Toronto FC vs NYCFC - tactical analysis

This tactic utilised USMNT player Micheal Bradley as the holding midfielder which allowed the other two central midfielders to step higher up the field. This created a 3v2 in favour of Toronto as NYCFC defended in their 4-4-2 which only had two central midfielders. This allowed the two other Toronto central midfielders the opportunities to occupy the half-space between the defensive and midfield lines of NYCFC. As a result, Bradley was oftentimes in great spots to play in between the central two NYCFC midfielders creating dangerous attacking chances for Toronto. 

However, the lone goal for Toronto came late and from a great cross from out wide from the left.

MLS is Back Tournament: Toronto FC vs NYCFC - tactical analysis

The ball was served in behind the NYCFC defence to Jozy Altidore who headed a great pass into the feet of on running Patrick Mullins. Mullins was able to tuck the ball near post after taking a great first touch, however, it would prove to be just a consolation in the 87th minute.  

NYCFC’s compact defending

The key in this match was the commitment and structure of defending utilised by NYCFC. Throughout this entire match, they constantly defended behind the ball in large numbers and remained committed to that tactic. Not only did they remain organised in their defence but they also regularly looked to put pressure on Toronto even in their own half. That combined with their commitment to staying compact regularly forced Toronto to resort to attacking from the wide areas through crosses which NYCFC routinely dealt with. 

MLS is Back Tournament: Toronto FC vs NYCFC - tactical analysis

In the above picture, late in the first half, we see exactly that. The front two of NYCFC pressing the ball and eliminating Bradley as an option. Simultaneously, the midfield four of NYCFC look to stay compact and cut out passing lanes. 

Even when Toronto was able to break into the NYCFC half the group remained organised and difficult to break down in their two low blocks of four. 

MLS is Back Tournament: Toronto FC vs NYCFC - tactical analysis

Here we see those two blocks operating together again behind the ball. They forced it out wide and have eight players behind the ball compared to the five attacking players we see of Toronto and this was a theme throughout the match. 

MLS is Back Tournament: Toronto FC vs NYCFC - tactical analysis

Even up 2-0 in the 67th minute, we see all 10 field players committed to defending together. Again NYCFC has eight players in the box alone compared to the four attacking players of Toronto. Just another example of how the defensive tactics of Deila were able to negate those attacking tactics of Vanney and Toronto. 


Ultimately, the key to this match was NYCFC’s ability to defend as a group and force Toronto into crossing from the wide areas. Preventing them from playing through the middle of the field was crucial in NYCFC coming out with three points. That coupled with their quality in front of the goal and capitalising on set-pieces was massive in this match. Had Toronto been a bit sharper and more concentrated on dead balls this may have been a different story. Still, credit to Deila’s men who were able to finally defeat Toronto in a loser-out style match.