MLS 2019: Cincinnati FC vs Toronto FC – tactical analysis

MLS 2019: Cincinnati FC vs Toronto FC - tactical analysis tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

Toronto FC, before heading into this match, were hoping for a win. It was simple. Toronto are in a four-place fight for a fourth-place finish. One loss can derail their campaign. As such, despite the opposition, Toronto FC headed into this match with a serious intention to win.

For Cincinnati FC, who are positioned last in the standings, this MLS match was about trying to carve out a draw and more importantly, playing for pride. Cincinnati are almost guaranteed last place as there is a 13-point gap between their position and the penultimate placed Columbus Crew SC.

In this tactical analysis, we will show you through analysis and tactics, how Cincinnati FC lost to Toronto FC by a four-goal deficit in this MLS game.


MLS 2019: Cincinnati FC vs Toronto FC - tactical analysis tactics

Greg Vanney made two changes to the Toronto side that drew with the New England Revolution. Chris Mavinga was replaced by Laurent Ciman while Richie Laryea was rested for Nick DeLeon.

On the other side of the pitch, Ron Vans made an astounding eight changes to the side that had lost 3-1 to FC Dallas. A trio of defenders, Kendall Waston, Maikel van der Werff, and Justin Hoyte, were replaced by Andrew Gutman, Nick Hagglund, and Mathieu Deplagne. 

Moreover, a trio of midfielders, Víctor Ulloa, Leonardo Bertone, and Emmanuel Ledesma, were rested for Caleb Stanko, Tommy McCabe, and Joe Gyau. Finally, the pair of attackers, Kekuta Manneh – due to a red card – and Allan Cruz were replaced by Frankie Amaya and Rashawn Dally respectively.

Cincinnati unable to play against Toronto’s press 

Toronto, when pressing, changed their shape from a 4-4-1-1 to a 4-1-4-1. This pressing formation was effective at stopping Cincinnati’s play from the back as the Orange and Black pushed up their fullbacks to form a line of four after their two centre-backs.

Cincinnati’s game plan was to play out from the back and make counterattacking scenarios in Toronto’s half. Moreover, they wanted to rely on their midfield to support the front two strikers, allowing them full freedom and width.

Their main power came in the midfield as the fullbacks would join the midfield to allow for the creation of numerically superior situations in the centre of the pitch. These situations would allow Cincinnati to progress upfield and hit Toronto on the counterattack.

As such Toronto needed a pressing tactic that would allow them to suppress this midfield power. This is where the formation changes came into effect.

The lone striker serves as a catalyst for their pressing tactics, applying pressure to each centre backs with a combination of curved runs and diagonal runs. The block of four behind the lone striker helped to control the fullbacks and restrict Cincinnati from playing into the middle.

As such, the Red Patch Devils allowed Cincinnati to play near their own half knowing that they would not be able to progress the ball into the midfield and build counterattacking scenarios. This can be seen as the two centre-backs of Cincinnati, the free players from Toronto’s press, ended up playing eight long balls each, the highest in the team.

MLS 2019: Cincinnati FC vs Toronto FC - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the pressing structure of Toronto

In the picture, we can see the clear 4-1-4-1 pressing structure. The striker provides the pressure to the ball carrier while the block surrounds and blocks passing lanes for the ball carrier. Moreover, each player is also covering his cover shadow, the space behind a player, and as such, the defender has no choice but to launch a long ball.

Moreover, the block of four meant that whenever Cincinnati got the ball to their midfield, they lost the ball. As such, Toronto constantly dispossessed Cincinnati at the midfield line. This meant that Cincinnati were being caught in their transition from defence to attack and were vulnerable to counterattacks.

MLS 2019: Cincinnati FC vs Toronto FC - tactical analysis tactics
Here is the statistic of dispossessions for Cincinnati FC

Here we see the dispossessions of Cincinnati. As one can see, most of the dispossessions are near the halfway line. This means that just as Cincinnati got themselves higher up the pitch, they would lose the ball leading to a counterattack and being opened up.

Toronto’s wide play creates havoc for Cincinnati

The Red Patch Devils’ attacking structure was in standard Toronto fashion: efficient and easy on the eye. Playing possession football, Toronto’s goal was very clear: utilize wing overloads.

A high and wide positioning, as with the Toronto wingers, forces the defensive line to stretch. If they don’t stretch then the fullbacks get isolated with wingers, a situation that often always results in the winger beating the fullback. 

However, if the backline does stretch, midfielders can make runs penetrating the defensive line, allowing the opposing team to get behind the defence and get closer to the goal. This dilemma often makes the defensive line commits errors which allows attackers to pounce and score a goal. 

To accomplish this, Toronto positioned both of their fullbacks high up the field but not too high as to leave themselves open to counterattacks. This positioning of fullbacks was important as it allowed the wingers of Toronto to go higher up.

With the wingers high up, and the fullbacks supporting them, Toronto’s attacking structure was half complete. There has to be an ulterior motive behind a tactic and sometimes, the more advanced it is, the team achieves more success.

With Toronto, the ulterior motive behind wing overloads was to generate space in the centre. Generating space in the centre allows one’s attackers to have more area and time to play in. This, of course, positively correlates with a chance at goal.

However, the ways Toronto achieved this end result was often in different ways. This variety in achieving the same result made the Devils more unpredictable than their usual ways and caused the defence of Cincinnati to commit more mistakes.

The first way was through playing long balls from the centre of the pitch. These long balls would place the ball in a 1v1 situation in which Toronto could directly attack the opposing fullback. The play from the winger would attract the fullback which would vacate space in the centre of the pitch. 

MLS 2019: Cincinnati FC vs Toronto FC - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the results of Toronto’s wing play

Here we see the winger near the touchline, high and wide, dragging the fullback out of his position. This creates a big space behind the fullback and the defender and as such, opens a space through which a nearby Toronto attacker run and exploit.

This run will disrupt the defensive line allowing Toronto to carve out Cincinnati and create spaces for themselves to attack.

As such the winger would pass in the centre and from here progress Toronto’s attack from the central areas. These passes would be received from people in spaces that could create many key chances. This is why out of the 11 chances created by Toronto, 7 of them come in the centre of the pitch.

MLS 2019: Cincinnati FC vs Toronto FC - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the key passes statistics for Toronto FC.

Here, showcased in blue, are the key passes of Toronto FC. As one can see, most of the key passes are located in the centre of the pitch, reinforcing the idea that Toronto FC used the wing overloads to create opportunities to create chances in the centre.

These key passes led to Toronto’s interchanging attacking structure in the wide areas. This meant a continuous passage of play between the winger and accompanying players in the centre. These one-twos would create a diversion for the wing players and as such create space on both flanks.

The fullback, in an attempt to cover his space, would move out of position allowing space to be created in the centre. This would then be utilized Toronto players for crossing, as in the instance of the third goal.

MLS 2019: Cincinnati FC vs Toronto FC - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the usage of the “zig-zag” tactics of Toronto FC

Here we see the “zig-zag” pattern used by Toronto. Here the fullback gives the pass (shown in solid white) to the Toronto midfielder. From there, the fullback makes a run (shown in dotted white) while the midfielder prepares to pass (dotted orange) to the overlapping fullback.

The fullback also makes his preemptive movements, shown in green, in the direction of the fullback which creates space for the midfielder to attack the central space, shown in yellow. One of the attacking members spots the opportunity and can potentially get on the end of the cross to score a goal.

Cincinnati’s defensive deficiencies make Toronto deadlier

This game plan was centred on some characteristics of Cincinnati that allowed The Devils to dispatch the defensive line of the Orange and Blue. The first aspect of Cincinnati was their left-back Andrew Gutman and his defensive deficiencies and the second aspect was Cincinnati’s attacking structure. 

In their game plan, it is necessary for Cincinnati to have some sort of balance as their whole game revolves around the midfield. Any losses in the midfield resulted in a situation against two centre-backs who are exposed.

Out of the two fullbacks, Gutman was the deeper fullback, staying behind to help the Orange and Blue defensive line. This is seen as his heatmap primarily showcases his limited movements. With this information, one would think that the other wing flank would be more attacked and exploited.

MLS 2019: Cincinnati FC vs Toronto FC - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the heatmap of Gutman

Here we see Gutman’s heatmap. As one can see, he normally stayed behind the midfield line and stays behind to help the defence. All four attackers of the Devils targeted Gutman’s side throughout the game. This can be seen as their collective heatmaps were same as Gutman’s heatmap, showcasing their willingness to attack one side. 

So why was the Celtic defender repeatedly targeted?

Simply put, despite his limited role and movement, Gutman was inefficient in his defensive duties. Being pulled left, right, and centre, Gutman had to make tackles. This is highlighted as he made the highest number of tackles in both teams but was only successful in two. This rate meant that there were many times that Gutman’s decision making was exploited and space was vacated on the right-hand wing flank.

Moreover, the accumulation of four attackers on a weak defender meant that the right-wing flank was repeatedly left wide open and as such, the Devils kept attacking through that side. 

The second aspect, which helped Toronto in their attack, was the general attacking structure of Cincinnati. Unlike Toronto, Cincinnati push one of their fullbacks to participate in the attack. While, in theory, the tactic is beneficial as it introduces balance the team, Gutman’s performance meant that Cincinnati ended up being open on both flanks.

MLS 2019: Cincinnati FC vs Toronto FC - tactical analysis tactics
Here we see the combined heatmap of Gutman and Deplagne

Here we see the heatmaps of both fullbacks. Notice how the second fullback spends most of this time upfield and rarely comes back to defend.

This meant that Mathieu Deplagne’s, the right-back, attacking ventures upfield were more readily exploitable as Gutman was not able to give the intended balance. This is seen as Deplagne recorded 4 dispossessions, all in his half, the highest in his team. These dispossessions are harmful towards the team as they catch the team while they are transitioning from their defensive block to the attacking block.

This surprise catches mean that when Toronto attacked, they find spaces and gaps between the positioning of the players. These gaps can allow the Devils to start a dangerous attack. Additionally, since Cincinnati pushes their fullback high, Toronto have one less player to worry about and as such have numerical superiority. When you have more players, you can get around the team’s tactics and attack more efficiently. 


This match was very one-sided with Greg Vanney’s team dominating in possession and chances. The main positive for Vanney’s team will be the massive goal difference that his team have gained. This goal difference should help Toronto have an advantage of their fellow rivals.

On the other side, Ron Vans and his team will have a lot of work to do with his team. Carved out vertically and horizontally, Cincinnati FC looked completely clueless in trying to find solutions against the strong Toronto FC.

Artwork by @chapulana

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