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Breakdown: Toronto FC must remain patient in wake of Real Salt Lake defeat

Toronto FC traveled to Real Salt Lake with two wins in the bag and an increasing load of expectations. The heavy defeat at Rio Tinto Stadium dealt the emerging Reds a setback, but the loss should not alter the overarching plan for the remainder of the season.

Toronto FC could only watch as Real Salt Lake stormed to a 3-0 victory at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday.

Russell Isabella / USA TODAY Sports

The inevitable push and pull of adverse and positive results from week to week changes perceptions in rather drastic ways. No team is suffering through the phenomenon quite like Toronto FC in the wake of its 3-0 defeat at Real Salt Lake on Saturday night.

RSL altered some thought processes when it romped to victory. The entire exercise proved a study in contrast: a cultivated, polished side taking a newer, fresher outfit out behind the woodshed with a mixture of slick passing and sharp finishing. The overall performance raised questions about TFC’s viability as a genuine MLS Cup contender – the Reds were, for some reason, touted as such after winning the first two games in some hasty quarters – and underscored the work still to do.

One heavy defeat did not fundamentally change TFC as a team, though. Ryan Nelsen’s side remains the same flawed and talented proposition it was before it traveled to Utah. Nelsen has fashioned a coherent and evident strategy from the vastly improved pieces at his disposal: he wants to keep things tight within his basic 4-4-2 setup, soak up pressure with the opponent generally allowed to keep the ball and then spring forward quickly on the counter toward Jermain Defoe.

The pieces in place – Defoe and Gilberto (assuming he gets fit and settles a bit) up front and Michael Bradley and the desperately missed Jonathan Osorio in central midfield – suit a counterattacking game. LA Galaxy rode David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane to a pair of MLS Cups by moving quickly through its key stars instead of dominating the run of play. Quality trumps quantity in this sort of operation, though TFC will certainly note the Galaxy’s strong supporting cast and the time required to assemble it.

Toronto FC can tear teams apart on the counter, but it might take some time to transform its promising base into a MLS Cup-winning side.

Joe Nicholson / USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, the plan goes awry on a particular day and leads to painful setbacks. The chances hit the stands instead of the back of the net. The shape splinters at inopportune moments. And the opposition – and this certainly proved the case on Saturday night – occasionally presents too much to handle on the day for whatever reason.

At this point, the primary concern for Toronto FC’s formula involves the slim margin for error. The drop from Osorio (excellent in tandem with Bradley over the first two games) to Jeremy Hall (overmatched in a very difficult situation on Saturday) highlights the potential concerns when the inevitable mixing and matching occurs. The prospect of playing for any lengthy of time without Bradley, Defoe (substituted with a left hamstring complaint) or Steven Caldwell (decidedly at risk for potential Disciplinary Committee action after a nasty challenge on Ned Grabavoy) is downright frightening.

Only time will tell whether TFC can increase its leeway with a couple of clever signings in the summer. For now, the current philosophy offers reason for hope as the Reds muddle through the scrutiny and the shifting perceptions. Two good wins and one poor defeat does not a season make. And now TFC must exhibit the requisite patience and maintain a steady hand through the ups and downs to secure the desired results along the way.

Five Points – Week 4

1. Marco Di Vaio rescues Montréal again: The veteran Italian striker spent much of Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Philadelphia in search of his footing in front of goal. He looked like the sort of plunderer who had just missed three matches through suspension and who needed to work through the kinks before he recovered his usual predatory instincts. Montréal stayed the course and stuck with its preferred method of playing behind and through the line. The continued faith eventually reaped dividends on the equalizer as Di Vaio raced clear, sliced toward the middle and sumptuously curled home to give the Impact its first point of the season. He will need to do more of the same in subsequent weeks to paper over the evident defensive cracks and shunt this group back on its proper track.

2. Can anyone keep Colorado from the spot?: MLS referees have awarded 16 penalty kicks in the first four weeks of the season. Colorado has won five of them. The total includes the two spot kicks awarded in the 3-2 home defeat to Sporting Kansas City – and, admittedly, the reasoning behind the first decision still isn’t readily apparent – and the three racked up over the Rapids’ first two matches.

Vicente Sánchez currently sits atop the Golden Boot chase with four goals. All of his tallies – including the two conversions on Saturday – have come from the spot. Deshorn Brown scored the other attempt during the 2-0 victory over Portland last weekend. And the best part? Every single one of the Rapids’ goals this season has come from 12 yards.

Credit the Rapids’ ability to play through the defense for the unexpected spike in penalty production. Brown receives great service from midfield and tests opposing defenders time and time again with his speed behind the line. Other players possess the skill to tempt the opposition into rash challenges. The penalties will likely dry up at some stage, but the methods used to procure them should prove helpful as the Rapids attempt to boost their production from the run of play.

3. Pedro Morales captures his potential influence in one brief clip: Vancouver boss Carl Robinson raved about the former Malaga playmaker when he spoke with Inside MLS last weekend. His praise made all the more sense after the Chilean schemer followed a rather poor corner kick with this sumptuous ball for the opener in the Whitecaps’ 2-1 victory over Houston on Saturday.

4. Defiance, opportunism spark Columbus’ shock win in Seattle: Everything needed to fall perfectly for the Crew to extend its unblemished start to the season. Somehow, it did. Steve Clark produced several fine stops to maintain the one-goal deficit created by Kenny Cooper’s opener. Djimi Traore recklessly bundled over Dominic Oduro to allow Federico Higuaín to equalize from the spot and reduce Sounders FC to 10 men. And then Higuaín played quickly – perhaps too swiftly from a Seattle point-of-view given the ongoing lecture from referee Allen Chapman, but Chapman didn’t stop the play as he probably should have – to set the stage for Justin Meram’s wonderful, last-gasp winner.

The triumph offers a cautionary tale for Seattle (even a decent home display offers little protection against momentary concentration lapses at critical junctures) and an important example for Columbus (stay in the game at all costs away from home and rely on sharpness at the right times to yield results) to carry through. Most importantly, it offers another building block for a Crew outfit still trying to find itself as it strings these wins together.

5. Luis Robles played a part in the Red Bulls’ late equalizer: New York dithered and fumbled through much of Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Chivas USA. The Supporters’ Shield holders lacked coherence and rhythm for much of the afternoon and struggled to muster any sense of urgency before halftime. It looked like those issues would cost them dearly until Robles intervened at the death to facilitate the equalizer.

How did Robles play his part? Watch the highlight of Péguy Luyindula’s last-gap equalizer carefully and focus on the goal area:

Robles bounded into the penalty area and placed himself right next to Chivas USA goalkeeper Dan Kennedy – excellent during the second half to protect the lead – before the corner kick floated into the box. The exact positioning essentially prevented Kennedy from coming off his line (if he ever intended to do so) and trying to cope with Eric Alexander’s service into the goal area. Luyindula beat his marker to the spot and turned home to rescue the Red Bulls, but Robles warrants his own modest plaudits for ensuring Luyindula or one of his teammates would have a chance to make a run at the delivery.